RASPUTINA/DANIEL KNOX

(August 9, 2015; OLD ROCK HOUSE, Saint Louis MO)

The place to be.

Pretty much everybody has a bucket list. The bucket lists of people who write about music looks a whole lot different than other such lists; my list probably looks unlike anyone, anywhere, in any profession. Unfortunately, at least two-thirds of my list would require a time machine, so… what about that other third? Well, on a Sunday night in August, I was able to cross one item from my list: Rasputina live, with yours truly front and center. I have, occasionally, been disappointed after accomplishing something from my list; this one more than lived up to my expectations. The fact that the show took place at Saint Louis’ Old Rock House was a bonus.

Daniel Knox (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Daniel Knox (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

A second bonus was the opening act, Daniel Knox, a quirky, disheveled singer/songwriter with a pen tucked behind his left ear and a penchant for rummaging through a stack of crumpled notebook paper, looking for the lyrics to his next song. It wasn’t hard to keep track of how many songs Knox performed… you just had to follow the bouncing wads of paper. You see, as he finished one song, he would crumple the lyrics and drop the paper at his feet. Accompanying himself on electric piano and the occasional backing track or kazoo (on “You Win Some, You Tie Some”), Knox relied heavily on his new, eponymous third album, offering up the new single, “Blue Car,” a song about a near-deserted mall in his hometown (Springfield IL) called “White Oaks Mall” and a “song about my imaginary friend… my Mom wouldn’t allow him in her car, he wasn’t allowed in the house” called “David Carmichael.” Daniel’s odd, mumbling stream-of-unconsciousness intros were almost as good as the songs themselves. He introduced “Blue Car” as, “A song about time travel. I wrote it when I was ten… ten years from now.” The lyrics to another, called “Chasescene,” includes the macabre couplet “I love you in the ground/Your naked and cannot make a sound.” As stark and bleak as the studio versions tend to be, they take on a whole new creepiness with the minimal, solo approach, especially stuff like “Get To Know Your Neighbors” and “Ghostsong.” This performance was totally unexpected and very much the perfect table-setter for the headliners.

Rasputina (Melora Creager) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Rasputina (Melora Creager) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Melora Creager may forever be linked to Nirvana as the cellist on the European leg of their IN UTERO tour (the final tour, a couple of months before Kurdt shuffled himself off this mortal coil) but, to an ever-growing fan base, for the past twenty-some years, she is the musical and visual mastermind behind Rasputina. Creager’s backward-looking, forward-thinking music and fashion-sense glorifies the forgotten women and near-apocalyptic events of history, primarily highlighting the Victorian Age; her aesthetics have been a major contributor to the rise of the Steampunk phenomenon. And, of course, her music and Rasputina fill a big hole for people who miss the anything-goes quirkiness of the mid-to-late 1960s. A quick look around the room shows that the enigmatic three-piece reaches everyone from old hippies to young alt-rock punks, all of them rapturously soaking in the sounds of the past two centuries. Melora’s current bandmates – Carpella Parvo, who also plays cello, and Luis Mojica, who adds some well-placed keyboard elements and anachronistic beat-boxing – are equally important in bringing her vision to the stage. Covering a wide range of material (from 2002’s CABIN FEVER! to the recently released UNKNOWN, as well as some cool covers), Rasputina’s set was a slow-burn affair, relying more on lyrical emotion than musical crescendos, though there were enough intense moments and interaction between the players (especially Creager and Parvo) to keep the uninitiated (including me) involved and captivated by the show.

Rasputina (Melora Creager; Carpella Parvo) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Rasputina (Melora Creager; Carpella Parvo) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The majority of the material came from the last three Rasputina releases, with four from 2010’s SISTER KINDERHOOK and three each from 2007’s OH PERILOUS WORLD (including the frigid set opener, “1816, the Year Without a Summer,” which name-checks Mary Shelley – the inclement weather forced her and her friends to stay indoors, where Shelley wrote FRANKENSTEIN, OR THE MODERN PROMETHEUS during the prolonged exile – among others) and UNKNOWN. A frantic Holocaust of Giants” kicked off a trio of …KINDERHOOK tunes, followed by an operaticSweet Sister Temperance” and “Humankind, As the Sailor,” which featured Mojica’s persistent Native American percussion to great effect. An oddly appealing cover of Goldfrapp’s “Clowns” put an end to the first portion of the recital.

Rasputina (Melora Creager; Luis Mojica) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Rasputina (Melora Creager; Luis Mojica) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The three new songs made up the set’s middle section, with a tale of a famed lady-in-waiting in the Court of Queen Elizabeth, Bridget Manners,” “Indian Weed,” which allowed Melora and Carpella a bit of a break, with Luis looping the rhythm part of Creager’s cello, and a fever dream paean to Melora’s poltergeist called “Psychopathic Logic.” The latter led into a very cool take on Ray Davies’ “I Go To Sleep,” an early demo of which appeared on a “kitchen sink” compilation called GREAT AMERICAN GINGERBREAD. Other highlights of the evening – of which there were too many to tell you about – included the final SISTER KINDERHOOD number, the fragile “This, My Porcelain Life,” another historical piece called “Rats,” which recounts the time Bolivians asked the Pope to declare the vermin to be fish to alleviate starvation and featured a squalling, slide guitar-like solo from Melora and fan favorite, In Old Yellowcake,” which not only featured hauntingly visual lyrics about the vagaries of war but, rocks pretty hard, too, with a fairly awesome instrumental section with the cellos coming in with a rather dissonant sounding counterpoint before sliding into a nice harmony bit. And, of course, what Rasputina recitation would be complete without their brilliant take on Pink Floyd’s ode to broken friends, “Wish You Were Here?”

Rasputina (Carpella Parvo; Melora Creager; Luis Mojica) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Rasputina (Carpella Parvo; Melora Creager; Luis Mojica) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

I will admit that this was an exceedingly different show than I usually go in for but, by the end of the night, I was taken by the sheer theatricality of Melora Creager’s music and lyrics and the performance of all three members of Rasputina. Luis Mojica, in particular, comes across as a sort of super utility player, with his beat-box percussion, his use of the occasional hand drum and other percussive instruments and, naturally, the variety of instruments programmed into his simple keyboard. As in most great musical pieces, this performance proved that it isn’t only the notes played but, sometime, it’s the notes not played. Even though I can now cross Rasputina live off my bucket list, that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t revisit that particular item if given the opportunity.


RASPUTINA: UNKNOWN

(SELF RELEASED; 2015)

unknowncover

I have long been enamored of the look, the feel, the sound of Melora Creager’s pioneering Gothic cellists, Rasputina. For the past two decades (more or less), Creager’s dark pop sensibilities have collided with her sense of adventure, creating a sound that is, at once, steeped in musical styles long out of vogue and thoroughly modern in its approach. Rasputina’s lyrics are legendary in scope, retelling the folkloric stories of women – both real and fictional – generally relegated to the footnotes and page margins of history and myth. Now, after a prolonged layoff, Melora and Rasputina have returned with a new collection of fourteen chamber pop masterpieces, the self-released UNKNOWN. While the album is mostly Melora alone, in what she has called “a dank basement studio,” current Rasputina members Luis Mojica and, after a near-twenty year sabbatical, the returning Carpella Parvo do make the occasional guest appearances.

Rasputina's Melora Creager (publicity photo)

Rasputina’s Melora Creager (publicity photo)

Though the album (only available here) is less than 50 minutes in length, it is a sprawling miasma of diabolic visions and unsettling noises, as befits the purely modern incident that triggered the music… Melora was Cloud-hacked. The opening track, “Curse Tablet,” is a mad madrigal, with pretty voices reciting dark lyrics just below the furiously sawed cellos… rather like the voices you hear coming from beneath the blasphemed soil in an abandoned graveyard. The song is operatic in its musical scope and lyrical content (what you can make out through the haze, anyway). “Pastoral Noir” is a sing-song fever dream featuring a tribal vibe underneath some squalling, feedback-drenched cello. The narrative follows the goddess Vesta on her search for a shepherd named Tony. The goat-god with the answers, Pan, is embodied by Mojica and his chaos piano. Next is “Sparrow-Hawk Proud,” a (mostly) instrumental extension of the previous tunes aural abuse. “Unicorn Horn Mounted” is a unicorn’s lament for her lost horn. A whimsical tale of a guileless maiden named “Bridget Manners” sees the title character seeking her place in the world (or her stuff in the Cloud). The song is a brilliant vocal exercise featuring great harmonies (Malora’s multi-tracked voice, mayhap?). The dichotomous paranoia of “Indian Weedoffers another multi-tracked psychedelic vocal trip; it manages to be very disconcerting while sounding quite pleasant. “Unknown” is a jazzy, instrumental improv sort of thing, kinda like a Jaco or Stanley bass solo performed on a cello.

Rasputina (Luis Mojica, Carpella Parvo, Melora Creager) (publicity photo)

Rasputina (Luis Mojica, Carpella Parvo, Melora Creager) (publicity photo)

Emily Dickinson’s Trophy Envelope” is a seemingly rambling discourse on… Emily Dickinson by… uh… Emily Dickinson. It’s a frenetic, lunatic fringe of heavy, chugging cellos and tinkling piano fills. God, the Wizard of Oz and pudding all meet on the back of an envelope… that Dickinson woman was nuts! Another instrumental, “Steady Rain” is sort of like a Gothic hoedown. A very Siouxsie Sioux-like vocal performance with lyrics that well suit the track’s title informs “Psychopathic Logic.” Early on, the question becomes “just who is the psychopath?”The music is vaguely Middle Eastern. “Untitled I” is an instrumental, tonal in quality and a percursor to “Sensed.” That number is a languorous poem about death and obsession, but… is it real or imagined? Is the death natural or a murder or a suicide? Scraped strings and eerie vocals add a definite sense of horror to “Taken Scary,” a Sixteen Horsepower type of Gothic tale of revenge and murder. The album closes with “Hymn of the Wormwood Women,” another sullen, solemn mostly instrumental piece, with cellos and spooky vocalizations (no actual lyrics) doing the heavy work.

Rasputina's Melora Creager on stage, circa 2010 (uncredited photo)

Rasputina’s Melora Creager on stage, circa 2010 (uncredited photo)

After too long away, it is certainly good to have Melora Creager and Rasputina back with new music and back on the road, including a stop in Saint Louis at the magnificent Old Rock House on Sunday, August 9. Find other dates at the above link.