The haunting LA quartet Midnight Movies owes a lot of debts for its noisy noir pop to Nico and the Velvets, Julee Cruise, and others ... but it's making good nonetheless.
I didn't want to say it, because in reviews of Midnight Movies records, it's the first thing to come out of any writer's mouth: Nico. But there's no denying that singer Gena Olivier's vocal delivery bears a resemblance to a certain Bavarian icon's. On songs like "24 Hour Dream" and "Coral Den" on the band's fine second full-length album, Lion the Girl, it's pretty impossible to ignore. But as she proves over the course of the record, Olivier is more of a singer than the Chelsea Girl, with an actual vocal range, and less of a monophonic talker/intoner. She's capable of soaring highs, as well as the lows, Nico built her career around. But the smoldering, mesmerizing quality of the Velvets' chanteuse is always there.
The music that supports Olivier has a Velvety quality to it as well, with simple (but powerful) tribal drumming ala Mo Tucker, walls of noisy guitar, and easy but indelible melodies. Just as the music of the VU was always informed by (and inseparable from) New York, Midnight Movies is all about Los Angeles. From the name of the band -- those Hollywood cult classics played on late-night TV -- to the fact that it records for a label founded to release movie soundtracks (New Line) to the overall feel of the music, you couldn't imagine Midnight Movies hailing from anywhere else. This is where noir was born, and Lion the Girl has its dark, mysterious and foreboding atmosphere. One could easily imagine Olivier and her mates scoring any David Lynch film. Or walking off the street into a nightclub on Sunset Boulevard and seeing the band, in any decade from the 1960s to the present.
The singer on the stage might owe a debt to Nico, but she'd be almost as deep in arrears to a more cinematic diva, Julee Cruise. Check the opening to the final track, "Two Years", or "Patient Eye", the haunting "Ribbons" or the wordless cooing of "Dawn". Indeed, Lion the Girl borrows heavily from a variety of sources. Girl groups from the '50s, '60s psychedelia, new wave dance bands, the Jesus and Mary Chain, shoegazers, and more contemporary electro-based outfits like Clinic and Stereolab, sometimes show up in the same song. The stunning opener, "Souvenirs" segues from waves of guitar noise to a reverb-drenched vocal passage to a keyboard figure that could be taken from the last Killers' record (which in turn could have been lifted from any New Order tune). With its driving bass line, echo-chamber tambourine, and overdriven guitar, "The Lion Song" could be an outtake from the latter day brothers Reid, say Stoned and Dethroned. "Coral Den" sounds like Olivier and her creative foil, guitarist Larry Schemel, have been listening to their Suicide records. And it all works.
There's a seamlessness to the way the band has taken these styles and integrated them into a new noir sound, helped along by the expert production of Steve Fisk (Nirvana, Screaming Trees, Pell Mell). And the lyrics play along, exploring themes of love and loss and longing. In "Two Years", Olivier sings: "You're gone and it's over now and it's right ... I never expected this but it's right / You have your place inside for life ... Too many tears for delight / too much fear for love and too much pain for strength ..." On the band's last outing, 2004's self-titled debut, Olivier sang such lyrics from behind the drum kit. She's since handed the sticks to newcomer Sandra Vu, which has allowed her to concentrate on her greatest asset, her voice. The band has also brought aboard a new bassist in Ryan Wood, and the quartet, at least on this record, has melded into an impressive whole. Their world is the Hollywood of the Doors and James Elroy and Philip Marlowe, and it's definitely shot in black and white. Every noir movie needs its femme fatale and, whatever she might be like in real life, Olivier plays the role on the record. "The title contains this idea of a girl being delicate and gentle," Olivier says in the promo lit, "but also a determined primal animal."
Just as it did when Nico sang, the power of the femme comes across on Lion the Girl. And by now, Olivier has gotten used to the Nico comparisons. Another one won't hurt. She's even said she considers it a compliment. She should.