Welcome to the first installment of “Under The radar Love,” a column by brooke bates that will feature bands the mainstream might not be too familiar with … and also gives us the chance to make a reference to the classic Golden Earring song …
I get a little nervous when people ask me about my favorite bands, because my list of obscure favorites usually results in a response like, “Oh, I’ve never heard of any of those.” And I say, well, you should be listening to them.
I’ll start close to my current home in Lakewood, Ohio. To the east is Cleveland — the birthplace of rock n’ roll (you’re welcome) — and to the west is Rocky River, the birthplace of Kevin Barnes.
Barnes is to psychedelic synth-pop what Bowie was to glam. Think: inappropriately sparkly eye makeup and highly feminine frilly shirts. Throw in some red go-go boots, thigh-high fishnets and …okay, honestly, you’re lucky if Barnes is clothed at all. But it takes balls (exposed or not) to construct his kind of multilayered electronic rock and lyrics that dance effortlessly through French literature and Greek mythology.
Really, who else could rock a line like “The dark epoch is over, I’ve found my efeblum / Then passed Ernst’s mausoleum defended by a rook / Who shot a look so virulent it pierced me like a hook / The palaver of Solipsists exploding in my skull”? K-Barnes, that’s who, in “Vegan In Furs.” But Barnes — along with his ever-rotating herd of back-up musicians, many of them partners from the Elephant Six collective of Athens, Ga. — keeps listeners from drowning in obscure terms with accessible upbeat grooves and trippy electronic vibes.
If you’re still not sold on the Bowie comparison, consider that Barnes often performs as his glam-rock alter-ego Georgie Fruit, mentioned in his song “Labrinthian Pomp.” It’s obvious: Barnes is the indie Ziggy who stumbled onto a mad synthesizer and found some shrill vocal skills.
“Vegan In Furs,” from Satanic Panic In The Attic (2004)
“Forecast Fascist Future,” from The Sunlandic Twins (2005)
“Wraith Pinned To The Mist And Other Games,” also from The Sunlandic Twins
This one you’ll recognize from Outback Steakhouse commercials. They sold the song and the lyrics transformed from “Let’s pretend we don’t exist” to “Let’s go Outback tonight.”
“Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse,” from Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? (2007)
The Dresden Dolls
The Dresden Dolls are what would happen if a circus freak fell for a punk rocker auditioning for Cabaret. Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione are cheeky vaudeville caricatures, carefully made with white face paint and red blush and black eyeliner.
But appearance aside, there’s nothing composed about the punk rock cabaret duo. They perform with a furious dramatic passion that makes Amanda stoop over her keyboard and massage the keys with vigor and makes Brian work up a sweat slicing through the sound waves of his drum set like a maniacal Charlie Chaplin.
The result: Each song is like a complete theatrical production. Amanda’s vocals are somewhere between moving and cringe-inducing as she marries wails with plunky melodies served on a black-and-ivory buffet. Which is perfect for me, because I don’t like girls that sing pretty.
My former journalism professor probably put it best in his response to my album review of 2006’s Yes, Virginia… when he said, “The Dolls are an acquired taste. They’re not for everyone.” True, but Amanda’s egomania will demand your attention.
(The duo has since split. Amanda maintained the distinctive sound on a solo album produced by pal Ben Folds and was recently engaged to Coraline author Neil Gaiman.)
“Coin-Operated Boy,” from The Dresden Dolls (2004)
“Shores of California,” from Yes, Virginia … (2006)
“Mandy Goes to Med School,” also from Yes, Virginia …
“Night Reconnaissance,” from No Virginia … (2008)
I like music I can feel. No, I’m not talking about that sappy emotion-drenched side of things that speaks to your soul. I’m talking about bass beats that vibrate through the speakers, reverb you can feel in your hair.
Thus, I dig Menomena.
I always imagine listening to Menomena in a spooky cathedral haunted by an experimental rock band whose vocal cords have a sense of humor, even if their dark songs don’t. Maybe it’s the organs; maybe it’s the lyrical references like “if Jesus would only wash my feet/ I’d get up strong/ and muscle on” or “I once believed you were my savior/ but now you’re nothing but a traitor.”
But maybe I picture such an ornate setting because Menomena makes a lush jungle of noise from an orchestral chorus of instruments. And the impressive part is that it all comes from a Portland, Ore., threesome and a track-looping program they invented called Digital Looping Recorder. They add layers of sound on top of that by trading off instruments and vocal responsibilities.
They can swing folksy acoustic guitars and lilting piano melodies laced with gorgeous vocal harmonies, but it’s often backed by crashing cymbals, driving bass backbones and buzzing background noise. They manage to blend organic and artificial, light and dark, synthesizers and hand claps and whistles. So, as close as they get to sounding pretty, it comes with the accompaniment of strange instruments and moaning vocals somewhere between eerie and silly.
Really, all of Friend And Foe (2007), but especially:
“Muscle n’ Flo”