Rasputina: A Radical Recital

[2 October 2005]

By Dave Howell

I don’t know if “cello rock” can be considered a full-fledged genre. But if it is, Rasputina is the leader. Having survived numerous personnel changes and being based in New York City, they are releasing this live CD, recorded in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2004. This might be the CD that makes Rasputina the first band to break out of the cello rock ghetto since the Electric Light Orchestra.

“Art rock” is perhaps a better description of Rasputina’s highly conceptual music. Until recently, the trio consisted of three women who wore Victorian corsets, and the group’s bio places them in the 19th century (“Melora Creager is the foundress… She moved to New York in the 1880’s to attend art school”). There are now two women; Rasputina currently consists of cellists Creager and Zoe Keating, and drummer Jonathon TeBeest. This combination works out surprisingly well.

The results of Creager’s art studies are shown in the 12-page CD sleeve, which features fabulous costumes, photography and layout. It is unfortunate that lyrics are not included. Too many times when you see printed lyrics for songs, they turn out to be banal and unimaginative. That cannot be said for Creager’s. These are from “Howard Hughes”: ” Give him a bite/Insulate the bed/Shoot him up when he’s dead.” Or from “Rats”: ” Very many years ago/The Bolivians were starving so / they had rats as big as ponies there / they asked the Pope / to declare them fish.”

Recital begins with rockers. The cellos are run through electronics, so the first track, “Saline the Salt Lake Queen”, has parts where one cello sounds like an electric guitar and the other cello more or less substitutes for a bass. By the fourth song, “Signs of the Zodiac”, the band slows down somewhat, so that the cellos sound like cellos and Rasputina sounds more like an indie-rock band than a hard rock or punk band. Songs like “Hunter’s Kiss” combine a chamber music sound with goth sentiments (“As I lay there twitching / then my legs were tied / there was nothing missing on the day I died.”)

Similar to Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull, Rasputina is essentially Creager and her backup musicians. She wrote nearly all the songs, does almost all the vocals, and introduces each songs with comments like, “I ripped a cheeseburger out of my daughter’s hand. I told her I didn’t want her to get mad cow disease, but actually I was just hungry.”

19 cello-based tracks might wear on you a bit. But probably not much. Creager is a talented songwriter, and her works are varied in arrangement and style. The beginning and ending rock numbers frame meditative and often mysterious songs like “Secret Message”. There is also a touch of humor with songs including “Momma Was an Opium Smoker”. And while it is almost required for a quasi-classical band to do rock covers in live shows, Rasputina does not disappoint with their renditions of Heart’s “Barracuda” and Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll”. The best thing about A Radical Recital is that Rasputina really does have a unique sound, something that is needed more than ever in alternative/pop/rock music.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/rasputina-radical/