So resonant of hallucinations, virgins, thrice-exhumed corpses, and young chaste Jennifer Jones beseeching God and/or David O. Selznick for guidance, Saint Bernadette is one heck of a band name. Hell knows which hat or hagiography they picked it out of, but it’s a keeper, definitely a nice change from, y’know, !!! and The Academy Is… Their challenge is to live up to it, which they barely manage to do on their slow, moody debut, In the Ballroom.
This record’s title (and central gimmick) refers to a specific place in Bridgeport, Connecticut: the ballroom on the second floor of the recently restored Bijou Theatre. For years, this space was the home of Dan Quilty’s dance studio, where the Corrigan Hop and the Yankee Prance were invented, and where Eleanor Powell first learned how to dance (cf. Quilty’s Upstairs for more info, and for recent photographs). Saint Bernadette didn’t use this location for the energy and dancing, though: they used it for the warm, wide-open sound. And possibly for the ghosts. For this is one sodden, downbeat album, recorded live in three days within that cavernous, empty space. The overall effect is an NYC metro area version of Portishead: more atmosphere than content, and a talented thrush on top of it all.
Meredith DiMenna does possess quite a voice, ranging from the power and dynamism of Johnette Napolitano to the waif-trill of Feist. In some songs, she even approaches the charmingly flat cynicism of Aimee Mann. However, there’s something all too “performed” about it, as if she’s not really living in or through these songs. This could be due to her relative inexperience, or maybe the awkwardness of playing to an empty ballroom. Yet there are moments where she hits you just right. In the jazzbo closer, “Beat Dialogue”, for example, the band starts raving up just a little toward the end, and you can feel her shifting inside the song and giving it presence with her subtle growl and swagger. But that’s a rare moment.
There is another problem: no memorable songs. In the Ballroom underscores a recurring trend in indie rock, where a band’s fear (or ignorance) of hooks leads to amorphous mood-pieces rather than actual tunes. This is not necessarily a bad thing, if you have a felt personality on top, or great writing inside (for example, Rufus Wainwright), but again, DiMenna’s method-singing can’t quite make these songs stick. And drawing attention to clumsy couplets such as “Your heart’s in your hand / Your head’s in the sand” (in “Such Ease”) doesn’t help either.
One keeper is the opening track, “I Own the City”, all theremin-style guitar and noir smoke rings, the slow-motion arc of Marcia Gaye Harden’s shoe toward Gabriel Byrne’s head in Miller’s Crossing. “I love the city, instead of you” goes the refrain, and I bet there’s lots of ethical sluts from Bridgeport to Boca Raton who fully grasp that sentiment.
Between the simple electric slide guitar and Dimenna’s metallic shouting, “No Dreams” is also a keeper, a tumble in the sack with Led Zeppelin, which even kicks up a minor ruckus. This is another instance where DiMenna loses herself in the song and gives it a little something special: her shout-gasm of pain toward the end does feel pretty good.
Some of the other decent songs — “Money in the Air”, “Sidestep”, “She’s a Natural” — approach a kind of groovy incoherence with slow drums echoing off walls and DiMenna weaving her way through them. Yet it all seems so minor, so contrived. You wonder sometimes, why did they even bother? But then, the real Saint Bernadette drank from a muddy spring and ate some dodgy weeds at the request of her ghost, and that had spectacular results…
Bernadette Soubirous was an oddly effective — maybe even savvy — saint. Relentlessly obedient to her apparitions, she succeeded in popularizing the bizarre notion of the Immaculate Conception (which I believe means six trillion purifying angels were dancing on the head of the Holy Mary’s zygote), and in turning the poverty-stricken town of Lourdes into a lucrative tourist trap. Although perceived by some at the time as a dimwit and nutcase, it’s clear she was able to manipulate her beliefs and her community to powerful ends. Also: her corpse never rotted, as three exhumations have proved.
The band that now bears her name has something weird and powerful to live up to. Bridgeport ain’t Lourdes, but this album (with its beautiful cover photo of the Bijou sign) could really start giving the town some life. And with some more apparitions, weirder songwriting, and maybe a wholesale embrace of cacophony and insanity, Meredith DiMenna may become a menace, a Karen O. for Fairfield County.