|Gram Rabbit - Cultivation|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by Jonathan Easley|
|Friday, 01 September 2006|
The California-Arizona-New Mexico desert vibrates as an organism of artistic inspiration; groups such as Kyuss, Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band (rumored to record in cult-like conditions), the Meat Puppets and most recently Queens of the Stone Age have found their sound in channeling its energy while letting the mystery take care of itself. Joshua Tree quartet Gram Rabbit are taking a slightly different approach – culling their sound from the geography but proactively initiating the mystery; albeit in a transparent manner that I don’t believe even they take (too) seriously.
Their live shows are often performed in masks and cloaks with fully-costumed bunny dancers, the lead singer’s name is Jesika Von Rabbit (not her real surname, I’m guessing), and they’re apt to tout the merits of their homegrown club the Royal Order of Rabbits as a conduit to spread desert energy, beauty, etc. (Their debut album was 2004’s Music to Start a Cult To; note the reference in this album’s title.)
That’s alright, I never complain about style so long as there is substance and quality present, and Gram Rabbit’s idea here is at least intriguing – they’re the only band I know of to be directly influenced by Jake Gyllenhaal’s breakthrough film “Donnie Darko.” Founding members Todd Rutherford (guitar, vocals) and Von Rabbit met while wandering around Joshua Tree (there is no straight-walking in Joshua Tree, only wandering) and struck up a connection playing Gram Parsons songs, only shades of which are evident on Cultivation (this time note band name -- Parsons was definitely prone to rip-faced desert wandering but none of this explains bunny rabbits). The danger here is the gimmick overpowering the music (note entire review so far). Curiously, and perhaps strategically, the band has provided complete transparency with the bunny-cult mystery. This eliminates any additional speculation but may be the way to go about something like this with an omnipresent media in the 21st Century. How laughable is the White Stripes’ incest ordeal in retrospect? The only other option would be to actually live the myth, although this is a treacherous proposition in its own right. Look at how former 13th Floor Elevators front man and solo artist Roky Erickson turned out. He was psychically dubious way before the mental institutions whipped his brain to corndog batter.
That said, let’s note that there is actually some music on this album, and Gram Rabbit has a talent for crafting spacey, cosmic grooves and sun-scorched country. Cultivation would have been a success had they stuck to this formula, but half the album is made up of overproduced electro-dance pop mash-ups that are frustrating at best, when they are not completely inexplicable. Album opener “Waiting in the Kountry” is an example of what Gram Rabbit does well. A heavy bass line runs underneath windswept sonic madness, gently understated ghost-town guitar, a high-noon horn interlude and Von Rabbit’s drawn out vocals about “Smoking in the desert…/Standing on a mountain/Watching the goats grow.” My hopes were raised even higher by “Angel Song,” the only track to feature Rutherford on lead vocals is also the best song on the album. Recently bands such as Calexico have taken to name-dropping Ennio Morricone as an influence, transporting the musical dimension of spaghetti Western films into modern song. “Angel Song” wraps that guitar mood into a rolling desert fever; this is Gram Rabbit reaching the pinnacle of their vision.
Unfortunately the band can’t decide between this and the dance-y electro-pop that feels like it makes up the bulk of the album. “Bloody Bunnies” is a hopped-up Stefani raver that bubbles with synth, keys and an annoyingly candy-voiced Von Rabbit. Much worse is “Charlie’s Kids” – hopefully the unfortunate result of trying to wrap a certain sound around words and ideas that were generated first. It would otherwise be difficult to believe that a band as talented as this was capable of such a silly, album-wrecking error. The titular Charlie here refers to Manson, and the Kids are his children, supposedly dispersed to foster homes after the Manson family’s big day.
In a strange, computer-generated voice surrounded by carnival-synth and child-like giggles, Von Rabbit lays down the following: “Charlie’s kids, where are they now?/They were spawned by LSD and hedonistic insanity.” It’s offensively not creepy, and if it should be pondered at all perhaps a book is in order. Regardless, the track does not work, and it’s these kinds of perplexing moments sewed in with the more serious Western desert rollers that ruins any kind of mood or consistency. In case you’re wondering, music critics don’t sit around listening specifically for concepts as nebulous as “consistency” – London Calling is one of my favorite albums and it has no continuity or even-flow whatsoever. But neither does it have a track called “Charlie’s Kids” – if it did I wouldn’t recommend that album either.
This back and forth is indicative of the entire album. “Paper Heart” tries to cover for a lack of melody by adding a manufactured, mechanical edge to Von Rabbit’s voice that still doesn’t fit the over-synthesized nature of the song, follow-up “Slopoke” sounds fantastic with the “dusty wind and hollow smell” of Western guitar and a full-charged organic chorus. “Sorry” is Garbage-styled alt-rock that channels a different Manson (Shirley), while “Crossing Guards with Guns” is a desert jam that tears at Von Rabbit’s cosmic vocals. And the circle continues.
Gram Rabbit need to find a style and stick to it. Ideally their art would be damaged a little more along the lines of Patti Smith (raw), although it’s easy to see how they got caught up trying to emulate the recent output of their acid-soaked brethren the Flaming Lips. Gram Rabbit is on to something; there’s no doubt this would be my cup of electric kool-aid had they the confidence to see how far down that hole in the desert goes.
Ethan Allen (Luscious Jackson) produced the band’s debut album and returns here to super-coat the awkward moments and cake in synth anything that doesn’t carry a country vibe. Von Rabbit has commented on the more organic nature of this album, but that is not achieved just by bringing a living, breathing drummer into the studio. The most notable successes from Cultivation are the bass, guitar and natural vocal-driven performances; however, that only makes up about half the album. This will most likely be an on-going issue. Travis Cline handles the samples and electronics; he is apparently the showman of the group and not likely to receive a scaled down role.