The Harvard Independent - November 4th, 2004
A Rasputina Extravaganza - Leggo My Cello!
By Allison Tanenhaus
Opening bands 27 and Skeleton Key mentioned the World Series only once. When several fans on the periphery of the Middle East downstairs room cheered at the Red Sox's victory, Melora Creager, leading lady of Rasputina, "a division of the ladies' cello society," only disappointingly remarked that she had hoped the applause was for them. However, the very fact that only a handful of people in the packed room were even thinking of baseball was in itself a testament to the compelling performance (or "recital," in Rasputina's more antiquated terms) that Creager, cellist Zoe Keating, and drummer Jonathon TeBeest put on for a costumed mass last Wednesday evening.
A Rasputina show is always a sonic and visionary event, and usually a really weird one at that. The fans arrived in hundreds of shades of black, complete with feathers, leather, and the ubiquitous striped cabaret stockings, but the costumes and visuals were not restricted to the audience: to the swelling of momentous Disney score music, Creager, in Pocahontas braids, and Keating, in her signature auburn dreadlocks, both wearing corsets and diaphanous slips and skirts, waltzed on stage, followed by the dapper TeBeest, wearing a top hat and black suspender set, nipples proud and shining. The trio (once a quartet, then a trio, then a different trio...basically the band has been through more line-up changes than the cast of Undressed) set up their Christmas lights and then launched into an all-out electric cello rockfest.
Creager and her ever-changing company (although the current set-up has endured for several years, and the cohesion among the group is definitely evident in live performance - Creager is most grateful for the "lucky combination of people with the right chemistry") have been presenting their strange and beautiful, melancholic yet curiously hard-rockin', unique brand of music for quite a few years now. Exactly how many, however, is hard to find out. According to its website, the group has been in existence since 1891 - quite appropriate given the music's Victorian, turn-of-the-century flavor.
(A brief true history: Creager tells me that the group was snatched up in the "post-Nirvana alt-band signing rush." They were signed to Sony for a couple years, toured with Marilyn Manson, and recorded their first two albums - the extraordinary and unsettling introduction Thanks for the Ether and the harder-rocking How We Quit the Forest - on Columbia, then split and recorded various EPs and side projects on several labels, including Instinct Records, their current home, which released the equally impressive Cabin Fever as well as their latest, the lush and challenging Frustration Plantation. Whew.)
From costumes to instrument choice to song topics (the Donner Party, captivity at the hands of savages, flea circuses) to album art (which is as exquisitely dense and intriguing as any I have ever seen), everything about Rasputina is meticulously planned and stylized in a melding of old and new. Their artwork is a combination of a sticker scrapbook and your grandmother's dusty, torn valentines (so essentially your grandmother's scrapbook, which would include stickers and valentines), and their merchandise includes hand-sewn pillows that "contain removable packets of feathers, fingernails, dust bunnies and...?" which are, believe it or not, authentic purchasables, crafted by Creager herself. She admits, "Sometimes people think from the website that it's not for real, but I just like to make things. For me, the whole band is a complete personal style statement; all these aesthetics are important to present a cohesive vision. I'm always thinking of what I can conceivably make, or get made properly. A lot of times I'm way off! Like right now I have lots of sewing to do, and I'm really backed up with embroidery orders." In addition to broken-cello-string necklaces (no longer available, sorry), homemade perfumes, hair rosaries, and other products that can only be compared to the wares of antique-inspired avant-music label the Abaton Book Company (truly no one else is more random and profuse in their swag offerings), Rasputina also peddles limited-edition Melora bobble-head dolls with "amazing bobble-bow action."
This wacky admixture of the modern and the old-fashioned is nowhere more apparent than in the music itself. For every "My Little Shirtwaist Fire" there is a track like "Diamond Mind," which mocks clichéd silhouetted-figures-plus-cheesy-violin-music jewelry ads (in theirs, the tagline is, "What other way can you make four months of your measly salary last a lifetime?...Gimme that goddamned diamond!") or "The New Zero," purportedly about Billy Corgan. Truth is, Rasputina will rock in any era, with hooks and riffs and even, however darkly shrouded, a dead-on pop sensibility. (Just check out "High On Life" from Frustration Plantation - it's their pitch-perfect version of a dark yet unabashedly jubilant rock-pop song. Of course, it certainly helps that all of Rasputina's choruses, much less songs, are perfectly structured, and that Creager's full, singular voice has so much richness that the transition between tragedy and joyous absurdity is always easily achieved...Oh goodness, I do love this band so.)
In particular, Creager notes an affinity for '70s rock, equal to her adoration of material from the '20s and '30s. Her largely solo album The Lost & Found was a culmination of this passion for rock's past, with covers of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Pink Floyd, and, my favorite track on the album, Pat Benatar's "Fire & Ice." According to Creager, the album was made when "the band was pretty inactive. I'd just had a baby and wanted to do something that wasn't hard or a lot of pressure, but more fun." The band incorporates these covers into their live shows, adding elements of whimsy but also more texture to their already dynamic performance. Instead of being kitschy, their remakes are considered and wise - Led Zeppelin's "Rock & Roll" is just as effectively rousing, and Heart's "Barracuda," with its ripping riff, is just as energizing and seductive. On a more serious note, Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back" is also a permanent part of their live repertoire.
Like last week's show, Rasputina's performances are often in more traditional rock clubs. While the band would like to play in theater or recital hall settings, these types of venues simply aren't available on a small scale. Yet Creager remains unfazed. "The whole idea of the band is that we're made up of contradictions." However, Creager did share several "wet dreams about staging." The group is "always talking about breaking into sword fights with our bows, or trying to think of other physical ways [to be expressive]. We practice facing each other in a circle, so we fantasize about all being on a huge Lazy Susan, or using a wall of mirrors so while some of us might have our backs to audience we could still be seen." In truth, their practical performance preferences are actually simpler than the setting or staging - ideally, they'd like to "regularly play in places with great sound," which, for them as for so many other bands, is a constant battle.
Pairing up with other musical acts to join in this crusade can also be a challenge. 27 and Skeleton Key proved nice matches for Rasputina with their off-kilter, dissonant, somewhat experimental rock, and their political and sometimes ridiculously sinister costumes only helped to bridge the gap. Recently a particularly successful match was with Faun Fables, although Creager confesses that last year's companion tour with Belle & Sebastian was more personal. "It was more they loved us and we loved them. The joining was from the selfish affection of the bands rather than from whom the audience cared about."
In the end, Rasputina's efforts are equally selfish and fan-minded (who else but Creager would raise a five-year-old, tour North America nightly, write and record imaginative and complex cello-rock songs, design the band's website, and make creepy voodoo sachets?). Every time I've seen the group, they've been lively and engaging, telling bizarre jokes and even leading the audience in a casual Q&A session (one admirer asked what the word "avolian" from the song "November 17dee" meant - turns out it's a word Creager's daughter Hollis made up). Rasputina's success is due in part to this truly individualist approach to music as well as to life outside of music (if and when such an entity exists). As for how to replicate this success, Creager offers the following timeless advice: "If you do things as thoroughly as you can and work really hard, you'll succeed. Good intentions mean a lot." It also helps to have a totally unique, cross-genre band structure, be enormously talented and devoted to your craft, and present a totally singular and visceral experience every time you play...but okay.