Rasputina mainstay Melora Creager returns with the band’s seventh studio album, Sister Kinderhook, produced and engineered by Melora, mixed by Brian Kehew (Fiona Apple, Air), and released on June 15th. Rasputina is currently a trio of Melora (vocals, cello, banjo, harpsichord), Daniel DeJesus (backing vocals, erhu, and the band’s first male cellist in its almost 20-year history), and Catie D’Amica (concert bass drum, d’jembe, ankle bells).
Songs are cello-based with stark, eclectic, vintage-sounding instrumentation. The band replaces the traditional, old-fashioned instruments of guitar and fiddle with new-fangled, or at least atypical, fare like cello, d’jembe, and harpsichord. The cello is an interesting choice for lead instrument as its yearning, and plaintively melancholic tone resembles the human voice and the result is an old-time vibe brought vividly to life.
Songs are also lyrics-heavy with such historical to fanciful subjects as Colonialism, giants, the Anti-Rent Wars of 1844, Early Americana, and Emily Dickinson. Melora’s homespun, story-telling tales recall the lyrics-packed, intellectual punch of bands like The Decemberists. Melora’s vocal delivery is unique, where every phrase ends with an extended wavering vibration that can be considered intriguing or distracting over the course of an entire album.
Opener “Sweet Sister Temperance” is a keepsake with Melora clearly enunciating her vocals with a sharpness that recalls early Sinead O’Connor, her fluttering, sing-talking voice mixing with the slowly-drawn frisson of bittersweet, warm, and gravely low-register strings as she describes poet Emily Dickinson “…she of the marble-hearted innocence…” whose “…glory and her power / plain and small and all things in between.” The briskly-paced “Holocaust of Giants” is a fascinating yarn about finding the fossils of giants in the riverbeds of Ohio. Sawing and fiddling strings follow the ups ‘n’ downs of Melora’s vocals as she tartly sing-talks “…even giants think they’ll live forever”, but that they killed each other off in a meaningless war, ending with the quite ironic line “Thank your lucky stars that we don’t do that anymore.”
The fast jangle of banjo, longing cello, and other strings fill “My Night Sky” as Melora talks about “…her desire to live in the past.” There are several exclaiming, high-register backing vocal layers that recall some of the songs on Bjork’s album Medulla. The instrumental “Olde Dance” glows with a soft patina of muted percussion of drum beat strikes, sinuous Indian-like strings, and finger cymbal taps.
Creakily sawing, low-tone cello gives “Humankind as the Sailor” gravitas as a variety of vocal lines float with and against each other as Melora sing-talks about “…embarking without hope of a safe way home.” The lament “Dark February” pits ponderously-pulled strings against shiny percussion taps with Melora’s wiry vocals shadowed by another as she waveringly sings “They say we’ll come to an end / then all things begin again.”