The No-No’s have a chip on their shoulder about the size of Portland. Well, it is Portland, actually — Portland, Oregon — the place they call home. They feel unappreciated there, misunderstood, neglected. They are in need of your kind ear.
There is something charming about an artist who remains convinced they are on the right path even as they are passed over and ignored. Think of poor ol’ Van Gogh, full of writhing flowers and roiling skies, slathering and gooping paint with conviction and frenzy for years, never selling a single picture; thanks for hanging on, we think. You knew you had it. You were right. Everyone else was wrong.
What the ungracious rock scene-goers of Portland are overlooking is a sometime trio, currently quartet, singing and playing an indierock version of pop. There are catchy melodies and upbeat rhythms, nice strummy bass lines and guitars with just enough messiness. And female vocals. We’ll get to the vocals later.
Singer Robin Bowser is the band’s founder and core member. She’s teamed up with a posse of in-demand musicians — guitarist Mike Clark (Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks), drummer Heather Dunn (Dub Narcotic Sound System, Lois), bassist Ralf Youtz (The Halo Benders, ex-Built To Spill) — who come and go asynchronously. Hectic schedules have prevented the band from playing together to promote Let Your Shadow Out, a CD EP which was recorded in just two days.
It starts out auspiciously enough. “Psychic Twin”, hangs on the bass, with Robin’s off-kilter vocals switching off between speaking and crooning. The second track has the feel of a sixties girl group, with the catchy repetitive line “I promise not to promise anything” packed like layers of swirled cotton candy with harmonized backing vocals from the rest of the band. So far it’s both poppy and bitter, off-key and wild-eyed.
But they just plain lose me at “Empty Bed”. A keening lament of jealousy and control, it shows off the weakness of the band: simply, Robin’s voice. Although she can’t hold a note, she tries to here for what seem eternities; while her lyrics are often bitter, here they are slow enough to be revealed with a nasty unpleasantness. The imagery may be romantic, but an unmistakable meanness shines through.
“My Sunshine” is no better. With only an acoustic guitar backing her up, Robin seems entranced by her own singing, warbling around, belting so far off key the tune is impossible to find. The electric guitar that comes in sure is pretty, but then the choking, splaying vocals return, and the spell is broken. The Monkees cover, “Love Is Only Sleeping” will make you long for the sweet smooth tones of Mickey Dolenz. As if you ever imagined that would happen.
On their last release, Tinnitus, the No-No’s managed these flaws with bursts of energy, fresh enthusiasm and determined vigor. It was a treat of a CD, and I had looked forward to hearing their new one. Back when she was more of an amateur, Robin was more prone to shouts and short lyrics; maybe she was less secure in her voice. Yet this style flattered her. It’s sad that more confidence actually weakens her performance.
Meanwhile, the rest of the band is having a grand old time, playing their indie pop-rock with personality and flair. Despite this EP’s flaws, the band still has tremendous potential. They can write stick-in-your-head, jump-out-of-your-chair songs, and can play as good as anyone.
The No-No’s have all the basics to make a really terrific record someday. But first Robin will have to learn how to use her unsingerly voice in a way that shows its uniqueness to its best advantage. And maybe realize that the band will get more respect at home when it really hits its stride.