Led by composer, singer and lead cellist Melora Creager and supported by a rotating cast of supporting cellists and percussionists, Rasputina (the Ladies Cello Society) debuted in 1996 with Thanks for the Ether. Creager is a skilled cellist and arranger whose compositions are consistently interesting, and the quality of the band’s releases over the years has kept the campier aspects of their performance (the Victorian costumes, for instance) from wearing thin. It would be hard to write Rasputina off as a novelty act after actually listening to the band’s material. Rasputina’s fourth full-length, Frustration Plantation, is the cello-rock band’s most musically and thematically cohesive. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does mean that some of the variety that marks Rasputina’s earlier releases gets lost to an overarching concept.
On Frustration Plantation, Rasputina draws inspiration from the music of the American South. The result is a collection of songs that ranges in mood from swampy to sing-song. The spooky opener “Doomsday Averted” is one of the best tracks here. Its deep, repetitive bottom layer shows off the cello’s ability (coupled here with dulcimer) to sound both ominous and lovely. “The Mayor” is another standout, a richly textured ballad whose final minute is perhaps the prettiest passage on the whole album. “High on Life” and “Saline the Salt Lake Queen” feature the amped-up, distorted cello work that Rasputina often employs. Fortunately, both songs have upper-register vocal and instrumental lines that add balance and prevent them from sounding too sludgy.
“Wicked Dickie” and the traditional “When I Was a Young Girl” have catchy, tongue-in-cheek, nursery rhyme qualities that bring a sense of humor and playfulness to this record. That’s a welcome shift away from the overtly goofy, distracting tracks like “Kate Moss” and “PJ + Vincent & Matthew + Bjork” that have served a similar purpose on earlier albums. There’s also a hard-rocking rendition of “If Your Kisses Can’t Hold the Man You Love,” once performed by vaudeville star Sophie Tucker.
But what Frustration Plantation lacks are the kind of straightforward, well-crafted songs that use the cello’s natural beauty and power — songs such as “Dig Ophelia” from 1996’s Thanks for the Ether; “Sign of the Zodiac” from 1999’s How We Quit the Forest; and “Sweet Water Kill (The Ocean Song)” from Cabin Fever — that are ultimately Rasputina’s most memorable. “Oh Injury,” understated until its mournful cello solo surprises you, and “Girls’ School,” a narrative about obedience and rebellion that proceeds benignly enough until the literally triumphant finish of both the song and its story, most closely approach the standards set by Rasputina’s earlier work.
Frustration Plantation is less all-over-the-place than some of Rasputina’s older albums, but because it doesn’t quite suggest the breadth of Creager’s composing ability, it’s not the best starting point for a new listener. Still, Frustration Plantation is a stylistically adventurous album that is sure to please Rasputina fans.