The New Golden Oldies
The Raveonettes may hail from Denmark, but the duo's all-American muse is unmistakable. Hatched out of love for an era when cars were long, women were glam, and rock 'n' roll was unadulterated, the Raveonettes are a foreign-born mirror of the American pop radio ideal of the '50s and '60s.
"We've always been very inspired by Buddy Holly and his way of writing really simple songs that are total classics," offers Sharin Foo, on the road with the band in Chicago. The six-foot siren's honeyed voice and seasoned command of English betray no sign of her Scandinavian roots. Influences range from girl groups like the Shangri-Las and the Marvelettes (the group's name is an ode to Buddy Holly's "Rave On" and to the Ronettes) to the "more primal" sounds of the Cramps, My Bloody Valentine, and Sonic Youth. "We've always had a love for noise and fuzz, distortion and dissonance," Foo says.
Her partner Sune (pronounced soon-eh) Rose Wagner is the helmsman of the group -- writing, producing, singing, and playing almost every instrument. Add his gently monotonous voice to Foo's songbird pipes and they're somewhere between the Everly Brothers and the Jesus and Mary Chain. The vocals are earnest and sweet, an amalgamation of crooning, doo-wop, and bubble-gum. Simultaneously, they're undercut by darker and more pragmatic musical textures, steamrolled by Wagner's rhythm guitar as though it were nicked from Link Wray's coffers. Additional guidelines from the White Stripes School of Style apply: Don't smile. Wear monotone colors. Swath yourselves in a wash of neo-retro existence.
To strike a Grease analogy, if the Raveonettes sound like Sandy, their hearts are pure Rizzo.
The 2002 EP, Whip It On, came ready for audible consumption. Its allure was partly grounded in madcap compositional rules: No song could be more than three chords or more than three minutes, all buffeted by a gaggle of distortion pedals. Whip It On and its full-length follow-up, 2003's Chain Gang of Love, were distinctive in their chord selections (B-flat and B-minor, respectively) and studies in minimalism, which also rendered them a little boring. Fortunately, Pretty in Black, released just three weeks ago, jettisons these restrictions in favor of melody, nostalgia, effervescence, and craft.
According to Foo, the evolution happened by accident, due to a lack of their standard gear in the studio when they started cutting the new demos. The sound "ended up sounding so charming and nice," she says. "We thought we eventually would add all the typical noisy elements. But suddenly, the clean guitars sounded so great, and we just went in that direction."
The band embraces the newer, more polished approach. "After touring with those albums and being in that sonic environment for three, four years, it was time for us to do something different," Foo says. "We didn't want to work within those kinds of constraints anymore because they were starting to feel like limitations. That wasn't really the initial purpose -- it was supposed to be inspiring."
The revised Raveonettes lineup is another positive variable: Foo, who previously took up the bass out of necessity, now concentrates on her singing, and they tour as a full five-piece band. She and Wagner also recorded Pretty with their live band in rural upstate New York. The record, as she puts it, became "more intimate and introverted. It sounds more organic, alive, and warm. It's a bigger sound."
Pretty in Black is evocative and diverse enough to absorb in one fell swoop. The Raveonettes unleash their Americana obsession with "The Heavens," as Wagner does his best slow-hand Elvis impression. Far from feeling schlocky, the song beguiles and clocks in at 3:55. The first single, "Love in a Trashcan," is instantly catchy, and "Here Comes Mary" is essentially "All I Have to Do Is Dream" under another name. In true commemorative style, Foo serves up a breakout solo, a breathy, uptempo rendition of "My Boyfriend's Back," originally written by their producer, girl-group architect Richard Gottehrer.
Also notable are Pretty's collaborators. Iconic Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker joined Wagner and Foo in Atlanta on her 60th birthday to lend her signature throttling to their sound.
"Contacting Moe was easy because she's a fan of the band," Foo says. "She'd been sending us presents, like some of her old VU recordings that were never released. She was a laid-back, cool woman and equally as shy as we were. She was very humble but still so particular about her sound. And in the evening, she came to our concert with the whole Tucker family."
Martin Rev, the elusive keyboardist for pioneering '80s electronic experimentalists Suicide, also hopped aboard to provide an element of sharpness. Foo describes the besunglassed Rev as having a real presence, "very experimental and avant-garde in his way of playing. At first I was like, 'Oh my God -- this is really wild. How are we ever going to get this to go with any of our songs?' But eventually, we found a way. He can really play anything, and I really admire his guts to just be totally out there."
Then there's Miss Thang herself, Ronnie Spector, dishing out her trademark whoa-oh-oh's on "Ode to L.A.," which rings with the timbre of "Be My Baby." "Ronnie -- she's such a diva," Foo gushes. "When she walks into a room, she takes up a lot of space. Obviously, me and Sune were totally star-struck. Sune was a nervous wreck. We could never stand there and say to Ronnie, 'Hey that sounds OK, but could you do that again? Could you do another take?' It would just be so inappropriate, we thought. We were too star-struck to say anything."
Such abundance of talent, however, is no threat to Pretty in Black's gestalt. Rather than overshadowing the soft-spoken duo, it enhances their experimentation. Whereas Whip It On and Chain Gang felt like pomade-slick byproducts of feigned suburban ennui, Pretty's domain is as expansive as the culture and landscape that inspired it. Tangible are the ghosts of Gene Autry, drive-in theaters, weary truck-stop waitresses, and unmitigated longing.
The Raveonettes may be from another world, but they gently remind us of how unforgettable ours is.
"Our quest now is to get [the record] out to as many people as possible," Foo adds. "We'll never compromise, but we would definitely like to have more people know our music. That would be lovely."
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