The Slow-Burning Ascendance of Ssion


The exaggerated stage show of the Ssion—the art-punk music collective that’s been hailed as the Next Big Thing off and on for nearly five years now—manifests perfectly the hierarchy within the group. Mustachioed frontman and queer visionary Cody Critcheloe sings the group’s high-energy dance tracks from an elevated platform center stage, prancing atop a huge cardboard mouth. J. Ashley Miller bangs out keyboard melodies off to one side, as befitting Critcheloe’s right-hand man. Two svelte look-alikes with noses painted black like cats strut at the front of the stage with choreographed moves matching those of their leader. And then there’s The Woman, popping up here and there when she so desires in her cleavage-bearing power suit, moaning and strutting and looking generally unimpressed but totally in control. Video flashes behind the spectacle, and those graphic elements repeat in the costumes and the set; the whole thing often feels like live animation. It’s all meticulously planned and admirably executed—much to the delight of the packed house at the Annex’s Ruff Club party Friday night. Even I was singing along. And I don’t do that.

With a new album, Fools Gold, out next Tuesday, February 12, and a growing online presence (the Glass Candy remix of “Clown” has been a blog favorite for the last month), this could finally be the Ssion (sounds like “shun”) incarnation that catapults Critcheloe to stardom. There have been brushes in the band’s history: They toured with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at the height of Karen O’s popularity, and Critcheloe created the album art for Fever to Tell. (He’s also credited with the video—done in his signature aesthetic of radioactive color and outlined animation—for Liars’ “There’s Always Room on the Broom.”) But crowds who were there to see the headliners—and who thus experienced the Ssion unexpectedly/unwillingly— sometimes didn’t get it: The band was still heavily conceptual then. Now they’ve happily crossed over to the light side, chock-full of synths and finger snaps.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Critcheloe since college. He sat across from me on the first day of spring semester in 2003 and asked what sign I was. When I told him, he sighed and said, “I’ve always wanted to date a Leo.” I was instantly charmed, not least because I was mostly terrified of all the other scary art-school kids in the class. But it’s that same charisma that allows him to coo lyrics about cruising for sex
(“Gee whiz/Street jizz/It feels more
dirty than it really is/Late at night/In the park/We’re gonna shoot white light all through the dark”) and poke fun at audience members (“You look reeeeeal funny,” he shouted on Friday night, pointing the spotlight at someone standing
near the stage) and still seem so endearing. He’s also unafraid to share the limelight, seamlessly slipping into the
background for The Woman’s solo—
appropriately titled “The Woman”—a stern and very funny feminist manifesto: “In the ’60s, I burned my bra/In the ’70s, I made out with a chick/In the ’80s, I made out with another chick/In the ’90s, I didn’t do shit.” It culminates in the profound proclamation that “Every woman in the whole world . . . is a woman.”

The Ruff Club clientele, with its long tradition of downtown cool, loved it. A foursome of Europeans in sunglasses actively pushed their way to the front, bizarrely yanking ponytails and tickling necks on their path to the stage. (“Did you see the pills those guys were handing out?” someone asked later. “They were huge. Maybe they were Altoids.”) Two giggly girls excitedly told me they couldn’t believe they were finally seeing the Ssion in person. Legendary club personality Sophia Lamar introduced the band, and the Misshapes were slated to guest-host (although I never saw them); when the show was over, dancing commenced in the sweaty, smoky basement. Critcheloe and company left the next day for shows in Baltimore, Detroit, and Chicago before returning to their home base in Kansas City. But I have no doubt they’ll be back soon.

Know what I’d like for Valentine’s Day this year? To be hit on in a bar without 2007 throwbacks to Mystery and his Pick-Up Artist–themed advances. It’s so tired. And gross.

Last week I found a wallet on the floor of a bar in Soho, and shortly after handing it to the bartender, the owner came calling. He offered to buy my drinks for the rest of the night. And he was tall. I was pleased. Until! “Are you really reading that book?” he asked, scrunching up his face at Nicole Krauss’s Man Walks Into a Room. “It’s terrible.” Here we go, I thought, nodding. His informed opinion, he explained, came from majoring in literature (lie) at Stanford (lie—thanks, Google); he switched to business after college, he said, and now makes like a gajillion dollars a year. “Anyway, I’ve never misplaced my wallet before. I think it must, you know, mean something that you’re the one who found it,” he continued. “Why don’t we walk up to Noho Star for dinner? Your ‘friend’ doesn’t appear to be coming.” I politely declined, but he pressed on, asking for an explanation. “What, this?” he asked, holding up his left hand when I motioned toward the wedding band on his ring finger. “Listen, nobody’s cheating here. Yet.”

I’m officially calling for an end to this nonsense. Maybe in 2008, you can just light my cigarette and say hello?