It doesn't make sense. Maybe I dreamed it. When I first saw Rasputina, they were opening for... Ben Folds Five.
I dunno, maybe it was some other trio of cello-playing, Victorian-dress-wearing Goth chicks who came out onstage that night in Boston back in, oh, I guess this must've been 1997 or so. But it sure as hell looked and sounded like Rasputina. They were witchy, and dark, and atmospheric, and just downright weird in that madwoman-in-the-attic, Tori Amos sort of way. Come to think of it, Ben Folds has toured with Tori Amos, too, so maybe he just has a thing for weird, witchy women.
But if you peel back the layers of raspy cello and period posturings, the thing you notice about Rasputina frontwoman Melora Creager is that she's actually an awful lot like Ben Folds. Weird witchiness aside, Creager is a master of pop hooks and lyrics that are both poetically vivid and wittily snide. The whole Rasputina concept would have fallen apart long ago if this weren't the case; instead, it just seems to get better with each album.
Case in point: the band's fourth proper album, Frustration Plantation. God, it's good. I keep listening to it in disbelief, waiting for it to unravel, because a record this willfully bizarre has no business being this good. But it is. It blows away anything Creager's ever done, and should establish once and for all that, occasional novelty track aside, Rasputina is not a novelty act.
It helps that the band's all-cello sound is much more fleshed out here, thanks mainly to the addition of full-time drummer Jonathan TeBeest and the excellent work of producer/mixer/programmer Joseph Bishara. Together these two gentlemen give the ladies -- Creager and the latest in her rotating cast of fellow cellists, Zoe Keating -- a thick, noisy rock edge that makes this by far Rasputina's most sonically varied album.
But it helps even more that Creager, as a singer and songwriter, is on a roll. On Frustration Plantation, she tosses around musical influences, pop hooks and vocal registers with an assuredness that borders on uncanny. If she were strumming a guitar instead of a sawing at a cello, she'd be a superstar by now.
As the title of the album and its scruffy, Southern Gothic artwork suggest, Frustration Plantation takes Rasputina's Edward Goreyish Victorian trappings and transfers them to the 19th century American South, complete with reimagined traditional folk songs, lurid frontier narratives, sampled field recordings and other vaguely period embellishments. It's an inspired twist on Rasputina's usual bodice-ripping imagery, and Creager has great fun with it on tracks like "Wicked Dickie", a traditional reel about a dear departed dairy farmer who "had but one cow", and the supremely silly "My Captivity By Savages", her hammy dramatic reading of a allegedly true story about a young girl abducted by Indians. But it also informs less obviously campy tracks like the gorgeously spooky opener, "Doomsday Averted", which, with its spidery dulcimer and wailing vocals, sounds like a cross between a bizarre Appalachian folk hymn and Led Zeppelin's "Battle of Evermore". It makes for haunting, unsettling, timeless music -- and yes, even here, Creager manages to sneak a catchy melody into all the eerie atmospherics.
Elsewhere, Creager's knack for a great hook informs everything from screechy rock anthems like "Possum of the Grotto" and the swampy, majestic "Saline the Salt Lake Queen" (on which fuzz-box cellos convincingly stand in for electric guitars) to haunting English-style folk ballads like "The Mayor" (think XTC meets Cordelia's Dad) to, most memorably, the closest thing Rasputina have done yet to straight-ahead power pop, an almost absurdly catchy rocker called "High on Life". It's a tribute to the strength of Creager's songwriting that what sounds like the album's most obvious throwaway -- with its Avril Lavigne-like chorus, "He was it, he was really hot shit/ He was tripping, he was ripped and he was high on life" -- actually gets better each time you listen to it. It's got a tricky verse structure, great lyrics ("He smelled like propane and butterscotch"), and most importantly, it flat-out rocks. If there be justice in this world, this song should be all over the radio by year's end.
As good as Creager's songwriting is, her way with covers is just as impressive, especially when she's sticking to more old-fashioned material. Last year's uneven Lost & Found EP found her wrestling a little too self-consciously with Pink Floyd and Pat Benatar, but her straightforward rendition of "Wicked Dickie" and spooky take on the old nursery rhyme "When I Was a Young Girl" (with its familiar "Ha-ha this away, then oh then" refrain) are inspired, and "If Your Kisses Can't Hold the Man You Love" is even better. Creager and company take this old Tin Pan Alley-era show tune and light a punk-rock fuse under it, storming through its catchy melody with fuzzed-out cellos ablazing and Creager delivering the song's arch lyrics ("Neglected girls shouldn't worry/That's what God makes sailors for") in a smeared-lipstick jeer that would do Lotte Lenya proud.
Rasputina's trademark Gothic chamber rock is featured less strongly here than on previous albums, though they still do the haunting vocals and groaning cellos thing better than anybody -- well, okay, nobody else does it, but you know what I mean. "Secret Message", with its oblique lyrics and Creager's raggedly pretty vocals, is vintage Rasputina, while "Oh, Injury" drones with the stately melancholy of a Nick Cave dirge. Only the album's closing track, "Girls' School", fails to leave an impression -- it's a too-obvious send-up of boarding school sadism that builds to an annoyingly cacophonous climax.
In case you're still wondering what's so damn weird about this album, I neglected to mention the throwaway folk ditty "Momma Was an Opium-Smoker", which Creager sings with quavering-voiced urgency over some of the album's most furious cello-sawing, and "November 17dee", featuring a creepy vocal turn from Hollis Lane, who is apparently a three-year-old girl with a stuffy nose and a fondness for nonsense words like "avolian" and "gralians". And then there are all those cellos, I suppose, but honestly, the production and songwriting on Frustration Plantation are so good that you really forget you're listening to cellos, just like anyone listening to those great Ben Folds Five albums forgot about the whole "hey, there's no guitar" thing. Eccentric instrumentation aside, Rasputina are ultimately just a great pop band with an immensely talented frontwoman, and Frustration Plantation is their most entertaining, consistent work to date.