Whip It On and On
In September, NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory announced that a supermassive black hole in the Perseus galaxy emits B-flat sound waves. That was almost a year after Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo -- a.k.a. Denmark's the Raveonettes -- released their first album, Whip It On, composed entirely in the key of B-flat minor. The duo's current album, Chain Gang of Love, is in B-flat major.
"It's a funny story to tell people," Foo laughs. "That we're in tune with the universe."
While many bands find their style intuitively, the Raveonettes have decided to consciously set their limits by keeping to one key for their first two albums. "Because there are so many possibilities in music today, it can make you totally numb," Foo explains. "We figured if you set a guideline for music, it helps you to be more creative." The literary term for this is oulipo -- an extra constraint one puts on oneself to augment creativity.
Initially, some critics thought this was a gimmick. In addition to adhering to B-flat minor, the Raveonettes recorded Whip It On using only three chords and keeping each song under three minutes. The first album earned the group a small spot of concrete in the crowded garage of the "the" bands.
Chain Gang of Love, however, is an album that has distinguished the band as conceptual artists. It's an homage to and a satire of American culture after World War II, when sex was still a blush on America's cheeks and surf rock was king. The influence of '60s girl groups, Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers on this album should be immediately evident to anyone familiar with the bygone era. "Noisy Summer" opens with a close harmony while "Chain Gang of Love" begins with the sound of a hammer on steel and the soulful grunts of men in bondage.
The band took this retro approach one step further -- costuming its CD cover as a poster for a 1950s biker flick, "starring Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo." The two appear straddling motorcycles and wearing leather, a theme they pick up on with "The Love Gang": "Here comes the love gang... chains, black leather, and sex."
Sex, fuck, and prostitutes are words that bulge from these songs. Eventually, the listener gets the impression that the album is revisionist -- an expression of how music might have sounded in 1960 if sex had been decriminalized and people could actually say what they were thinking.
Why the preoccupation with post-WWII America? Foo says the band appreciates this era for its iconic value. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower stressed the containment of all things foreign, while Sen. Joseph McCarthy rallied the country against radicalism. It was from this corseted culture that the blooming cleavage of shock value arose, especially in the form of beat poets. So maybe it's no coincidence that Jack Kerouac is Wagner's hero.
The Raveonettes have hit great heights in the past year, and Foo has left Denmark as a result. The six-foot-tall guitarist, with eyes like Viking shields and hair like sunlight, says she has gone from "having a private life in Denmark to living in London and having a musical career."
After touring in the States for the past year, Foo has also made something of a home away from home in America. "I miss the depth of history that comes from being in a country that's been around for many years," she says. "Then again, I'm attracted to the diversity and vibrancy of bigger [American] cities. There's a weird feeling of freedom in America."
According to Foo, the Raveonettes adore contradictions. "We like the tensions created in opposites," she says. "Like when you hear a really sweet song and it has really decadent racy lyrics with aggressive guitar-driven vocals. This album has the darker side of sexuality with the innocence mixed in."
Both Foo and Wagner often sing about lust for both men and women, which creates a fun sense of uncertainty. "I think we kind of like the androgynous feel," she says. "For us, it works well with our voices, because our voices blend pretty well. Often, you can't tell which one of us is singing."
The strapping Foo is almost an animus to Wagner's gentle anima. A slender man with boyish cheeks and dark curly hair, Wagner could be the model behind the "pretty lover boy" mentioned in the first track, "Remember." Chain Gang of Love has enough erotic undertones to crystallize listeners' curiosity about the Raveonettes' relationship. The duo insists they are not involved, but the speculation nevertheless persists, à la Jack and Meg White.
In fact, the Raveonettes' music, not just their relationship, often draws comparisons to that of the White Stripes, Foo says: "It sounds like people simplifying things, because we're a guy and a girl. It's not accurate."
So what is accurate? It seems just to allow the guitarist to fill in the blanks herself.
Sune is ________.
"A genius. He's brilliant."
I am ________.
"I am a princess Viking warrior."
I want people to __________ while listening to this record.
Foo laughs. "I want people to sit in their car and drive through the desert while listening to this album. It's a good soundtrack for driving."
Driving? Is that a double-entendre? There's no time to ask. Foo has another interview. Somewhere deep in the Perseus galaxy, a black hole hums a B-flat tune while the Raveonettes push along on their tour, on their way to becoming stars.
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