Rasputina – Frustration Plantation

Rasputina
Frustration Plantation

Given the amount of hype that constantly pours from the sweaty gears of promotion surrounding any given band, even the astute listener is susceptible to being more taken by the content of a band’s bio and the circumstances surrounding the recording of an album than the actual music being produced. No doubt, it informs one’s enjoyment of, say, The Basement Tapes to know that Bob Dylan and the Band were living together in a small pink house in rural upstate New York, and it helps to know that Neil Young was on one colossal bender during the recording of Tonight’s the Night, but all art has to eventually be valuable on its own merit, beyond its obvious narrative value. It is in those terms that we have to at least try to look at Rasputina’s Frustration Plantation.

Intended as something of a concept album where Southern musical archetypes would be plundered for inspiration, founding member Melora Creager reportedly led her two bandmates through the Library of Congress in search of classic Southern folk songs before the recording of this, their fourth release. That they eventually ended up soaking in the essence of Louisiana plantations and slave cabins while frolicking in period costume is also mentioned but ultimately seems a bit gratuitous. Look through the CD insert and you’ll find that the band is more than willing to play up the Southern gothic ambiance in both artwork and layout, but most interestingly, the concept seems to be found more in print type than in the actual sound of the album.

Of course, the back-story of this band has always been inseparable from the music, its legacy cemented forever the moment Melora Creager took her cello on tour with Nirvana, signed a major label record deal with Columbia, and started dressing in Victorian costumes. Let’s not even get into their association with Marilyn Manson. As such, there has always been a dangerous amount of kitsch and non-musical conjecture surrounding the band, making it particularly difficult to objectively evaluate the music when so few people seem to be interested in it in comparison to everything else on the table. And, ultimately, that is more than a little unfortunate, as Frustration Plantation is a pretty compelling album once you push past the extemporaneous layers.

Not a huge deviation from Rasputina’s cello-heavy chamber-rock attack, the concept turns up mostly in the implicit essence of the arrangements more than in the explicit sound. Take the opening “Doomsday Averted,” whose shadowy din of cello and dulcimer, as well as its circuitous vocal melody, almost make it sound like one of the more folkish Led Zeppelin tracks than a conventional Appalachian folk song. The dainty, and admittedly pretty, melodies of “Secret Message” and “Oh Injury” display a softening in the band’s sound that allows its stronger pop abilities to emerge but arguably have little obvious in common with the Southern cultural or musical tradition. Other moments, such as the driving distorted cello and theatrical whimsy of “Possum of the Grotto” and the punchy cover of the classic “If Your Kisses Can’t Hold the Man You Love” are much more in keeping with post-grunge alternative rock of an earlier decade. In fact, the careening, downright massive sounding “High on Life” and the howling feedback of “Saline the Salt Lake Queen” make for rock anthems that only have the predilection toward narrative songwriting in common with Southern music. Still that doesn’t really hinder the album, as the songs are generally pretty song, with Creager handling her vocals with mocking personality and over-the-top pomp, carrying off the audacity of the concept more in her post-modern presentation than in the actual content of the writing or arrangements.

Still, the weary and disillusioned tone of such music, from murder ballads to songs haunted by slavery and impending judgment, is persistent throughout the set and certainly gives it a distinct feel from everything else in the band’s catalogue. Rasputina does play up the Southern affectations a bit too obviously at times, as with the somewhat silly vignette in “My Captivity by Savages” and the traditional “Wicked Dickie,” the latter of which details the story of a man losing his cow in a way that almost seems to mock the conventions of such songwriting. When actually covering traditional material, as with enchantingly strummed mountain dulcimer and group harmonies of “When I Was a Young Girl,” Rasputina (not surprisingly) comes closest to realizing their ambitions, and it becomes obvious that had the band chosen to do an entire album of traditional tunes, it probably would have emerged with something extraordinarily original. As is, the folks simply have an interesting, if somewhat scattered, concept album.

And though it would be easy to frame this album within the classic style-versus-substance debate that gives indie rock its elitist taint, it’s admittedly never that easy. Whatever the case, sometimes the back-story of a work of art is simply inescapable, as it’s so inherently tied to the actual project that to ignore would be to miss the essence of the work itself. This, most assuredly, is not one such album. What it is, though, is a fairly interesting set of gothic-tinged alterno-rock songs that, despite their nods to the Southern musical tradition, are drawn from a decisively modern ethic. Still, the rather unfocused feel of the band’s previous albums is rendered a non-factor here, and if the artists in Rasputina needed a rough concept over which to organize their thoughts, so be it. Just make sure you’re hearing it for what it is, not for what you’re told it is.