If Rasputina have cabin fever — as we can safely assume they do, since that’s the name of their new CD, and please note the exclamation point — then their new-wave-girl peers the Space Ballerinas and Zia have earth fever: an obsession with escaping our atmosphere. Literally, in Zia’s case. Singer-songwriter Elaine Walker chairs the New York Chapter of the National Space Society, pitches colonizing Mars (not to mention “commercializing the moon”), had Zia tracks launched into the stratosphere, and named a song on their current (also exclamation pointed!) Big Bang! after Nibiru, the phantom 12th planet that — in the unlikely event it actually exists, as crackpot Sumerian scholar Zecharia Sitchin claims — clips our solar system every 3600 years.
Now, I know what you’re thinking — Zecharia Sitchin is no crackpot! I’m just a rock critic, not a rocket scientist, so believe what you will. Mythconceptions are what these three bands are really about, anyhow. Not that Zia don’t have their facts straight: “Nibiru” doesn’t assert the existence of Planet X, rather… OK, I can’t actually parse the narrative (something wordy about slaves, scholars, and gold mines, not velvet ones either, though that could’ve made sense, what with Zia’s glam costumes), but it’s clearly intended as a spaceflight of fancy. Soundwise, the song stitches together a squelching synth bassline, tensely driving drum machinery, and quavery electronic washes — the cold, “exotic” sounds we associate with extraterrestrial travel and club scenes from B movies set in the near future. But Elaine’s raspy hook, complementing the pounding buzz of a “Bombs Over Baghdad”-style break, blooms into her silky slink through the chorus.
“What Zia is doing now is potentially as radical and innovative as what Throbbing Gristle were doing in 1975,” sez Genesis P-Orrige, and maybe they should know, having fronted the latter. Zia’s industrial and electro-derived style is familiar, but apparently their songs are written using the non-“Western” microtonal scale, on instruments invented by Elaine — MIDI triggers on circuit boards that locals Walker, Liz Lysinger, and Matt Dallow hit with sticks. Very Nibiru. Fantasy, probably, but yet another signifier for distance, escape, and difference. That none of this sounds as groundbreaking as it might be indicates the flip side to everything that defines Zia. Their beloved space is cold — and absolutely silent — yet full of potential; their audience splits into hardcore astronomy geeks and hardcore goth geeks; their songs are at turns abrasive and radio-ready.
Rasputina also link high concept with low culture (y’know, pop music). In addition to the aforementioned fever, the Brooklyn trio of lady cellists, claiming that their new disc was recorded in 1901, apparently have yet to recover from the Y2K bug. Indeed, their hotte corset-and-bloomers outfits suggest early Madonna in turn-of-last-century garb, and, of course, there are those great big violins. But leader Melora Creager pushes buttons in addition to pulling bow — programming, for instance, the dodgeball drum attack of “State Fair,” which drives a frenzy of distorted strings and monotone raps about men who “look good from behind,” unlike “other guys/ selling curly fries.”
Behind their retro-cheek posturing swirls an arch, melancholic sophistication that’s sustained the band for 11 years on the fringes of alt’s evolution (Creager accompanied Nirvana, and Rasputina has opened for Marilyn Manson and the Goo Goo Dolls). Cabin Fever!, their third proper album, counterbalances delicate chamber goth with saucy industrial pop. The riffs on “State Fair” — their screech and buzz swollen with the air missing from electric guitar tones — give way to the soft whine and textured hum of clean cello on “Sweet Water Kill (The Ocean Song)” and the disc’s best track, “Remembrance of Percy Bass,” wherein Creager’s limited vocal range — occasionally crimped, in typical fashion, with vibrato — stretches, touchingly, to accommodate her emotions.
Such unmediated feeling is what we like about low culture. But we like suspending our disbelief, too — something that music critics too often ignore in favor of teasing celebrity out of mood or narrative, or in favor of smirking at dark theatrics for not being positivist, pop-philosophically tenable, or keyed to resolution. Over the bittersweet flutter of plucked and bowed strings on “Our Lies,” Melora recites a series of cute lines submitted by fans to Rasputina’s Web site (“Yes Mom, I’m still a virgin/and you are Marilyn Monroe”) that knowingly conflate story and falsehood, eventually closing with: “Oh, you can’t see me/I am your long lost friend/Oh, please believe me/All these things have happened.”
Also story-tellers, the Space Ballerinas open their maxi-EP If Goth Was Pink with a Narcissus update — spoken over a walking piano line and ethereal wails — about a dancer who falls in love with a, uh, sliding glass door. Running toward it, “knowing it would be the thing to make her invisible,” she crashes, bird-like, and must “pick up a piece of her porcelain body and start over again.” Pursuing purportedly accurate reflections is not an escape, although it can seem that way. Members of the Portland lady rock scene, which includes post-metal geniuses the Need, the Space Ballerinas (operatic singer Anna Oxygen on keyboard, Kelly Chambers on bass, and the Animal on drums) play raw, ramshackle garage gloom that borders on irritating if you’re not in the mood. But the funk bassline, slow swing, and classic girl-group harmonizing in “Strawberry Child” illustrate how far cobbled-together quirks can take them. Here, as on the similarly melodic and tight-rhythmed “Pick Up the Pieces,” we really do find out how goth would sound if it was pink. And in each of their playful, theatrical ways, Zia, Rasputina, and the Space Ballerinas all answer a question few would think to ask, but which deserves everyone’s consideration anyway: What if Pink was goth?
Zia play CB’s Lounge May 30.