What becomes a legend most? I’ll let you think about it, Space Ghost Coast to Coast
— Rasputina, “The Olde Headboard”
I imagine the term “goth” has this in common with a street drug: as a rule, the people selling it won’t use it, and will claim to be in an entirely different line of business. I have to imagine this because I don’t really have any personal experience with street drugs, and I don’t consider my expertise on goth to be much more extensive. But that’s just what you’d expect a goth to say. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who said, “Sure, I’m a goth” or even just “I’m goth.” Maybe they hung out on bulletin boards or frequented mailing lists or web sites with “goth” in the name; maybe they had the word as part of their online nicknames. And maybe it’s just that I wasn’t really ever part of that scene. But I was at least on the fringe of it for a while — wore lots of black, dyed my hair, occasionally wore nail polish, went to a couple of goth clubs, listened to music from Cleopatra and Tess Records.
But most of the music I’ve heard at goth clubs has been major-label stuff: Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure, Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus, Joy Division. And in all the interviews I’ve read with these bands, on the occasions when the G-word has come up, they’ve gently but firmly repudiated it. I’m sure partly it’s seen as reductive, characterizing the diverse musical influences of these bands as boiling down to velvet capes and fangs. But it’s also because the goth stereotype is depressing and humorless. Whereas everybody I’ve known who’s even been in the orbit of goth is intentionally hilarious and endless fun to be around.
I doubt Rasputina embrace the “goth” label any more than anyone else does, but as I perceive it, they fit perfectly. Three cellists in dusty Victorian underwear, looking like they’ve just crawled out of a grave, freshened up for about ten minutes with tepid water and topically applied poisons, and stepped onstage. Quavering voices singing lyrics about the Donner Party, Transylvanian concubines, medicinal leeches, suicide, Birkenau, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. But also, proving my rule: songs about Howard Hughes, smoking pot, Prince (according to speculation), and hunky carnies. Covers of songs by Led Zeppelin, Heart, and Pat Benatar. An imaginary picnic double-date involving two football players, PJ Harvey, and Björk. The music from a jewelry commercial with added lyrics from the POV of a gold-digger (“…gimme the goddamn diamond!”). Between-song-patter like “So did Hitler only have one ball or what? That’s what I’ve been hearing.”
Rasputina. They’re the strange noises in the dusty, cobwebbed attic, but also the discovery that those noises are your goofy little sister with a portable TV watching the Brady Bunch with the sound off and doing all the voices herself.
I loved their debut, Thanks for the Ether, and played it over and over. It’s pretty focused on those cellos, but there’s a heavier guitar-and-drums remix (though not an improvement) of “Transylvanian Concubine” by Marilyn Manson that was released as a single and points the way to their second album, How We Quit the Forest. I was fine with the minimalist cello stuff, but this opened up their sound considerably and made for lots more fun.
I have no idea what “The Olde Headboard” is about, for example, but it’s lots of fun:
My other favorites from the album include “The New Zero,” which today sounds like it might be taken from an Adventure Time soundtrack but was then some sort of love song addressed either to or from some sort of cybernetic yeti; “Rose K,” a sensitive, straightforward ode to the Kennedy matriarch in her post-stroke years; “Watch T.V.,” a lament for a lost love, a fired TV star, or both; and the aforementioned “Diamond Mind”:
What other way can you make four months
Of your measly salary last a lifetime
And what other thing have I ever asked you for
Besides the ability to read my mind
And I didn’t get that either…yet
After this dominated my CD player for a while, Cabin Fever came out and was fantastic. I started losing interest a bit with Frustration Plantation, and while I highly recommend the live Radical Recital, I have no basis on which to recommend the most recent two albums. They appear to have given Rasputina’s omnipresent interest in history center stage, which is probably fine, just not as interesting as when there was no way to tell what the next song would be about (or even what the last song was about).
I’d still go see these wackos live any day of the week. If this is goth, then goth is the life of the party. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.
Placebo, Without You I’m Nothing
I latched onto Placebo immediately upon their debut, when they sounded like a feyer and more spartan Smashing Pumpkins. By this album they were getting big enough that a lyric like “A friend in need’s a friend indeed / A friend with weed is better / A friend with breasts and all the rest / A friend who’s dressed in leather” sounds disingenuously shitty at best, but “Brick Shithouse” is amazing, and “You Don’t Care About Us” and the title track are great too.
Momus, The Little Red Songbook
Ah, Momus. I first encountered this artsy intellectual eyepatch-sporting Japanophile horndog on his 1991 coming-out-as-a-complete-pervert record Hippopotamomus. It was maybe not the most auspicious introduction to a really very clever and interesting songwriter, but at least it made his other albums look chaste by comparison. Well, somewhat chaste — there’s even one song title on here I can’t bring myself to type out, and it’s not a very good one. But so many of the other tracks are brilliant — “MC Escher,” “Lucretia Borgia,” “Born to Be Adored,” and “The New Decameron” are among my favorites — and it even comes with karaoke versions of 9 tracks if you’d like to try and outsing Momus (I fancy your chances).
Catatonia, International Velvet
My girlfriend and I were into The X-Files at the time, so when we first heard “Mulder and Scully,” we couldn’t believe we’d heard it correctly. “I Am the Mob” and “Road Rage” sealed the deal. Their followup, Equally Cursed and Blessed, was a little more solid in my book; the pair were in regular rotation on the car stereo for a while.
- Ani DiFranco, Little Plastic Castle
- Madonna, Ray of Light
- Morcheeba, Big Calm
- Pulp, This is Hardcore
- Massive Attack, Mezzanine
- Tori Amos, From the Choirgirl Hotel
- Garbage, Version 2.0
- Rufus Wainwright, Rufus Wainwright
- Jeff Buckley, Sketches for my Sweetheart the Drunk
- They Might Be Giants, Severe Tire Damage
- Liz Phair, whitechocolatespaceegg
- Remy Zero, Villa Elaine
- Belle and Sebastian, The Boy With the Arab Strap
- Saint Etienne, Good Humor
- PJ Harvey, Is This Desire?
- Robyn Hitchcock, Storefront Hitchcock
- Black Box Recorder, England Made Me