Deserts are known for being barren, but the high desert around Joshua Tree, California certainly gives rise to a lot of life. And not just of the mouse and lizard variety. Many different shades of the human animal can be found there: wealthy L.A. hipsters on "back to nature" retreats; peyote-addled society shunners who claim to have visions of god; soldiers on weekend leave from Twentynine Palms. The music that's come baked out of that sand has been diverse as well. Legendary psych-folkers such as Captain Beefheart and Gram Parsons found their muse in the area. Kyuss refracted that sound through thick bong smoke. A little Irish four-piece you may have heard of named its best album after the location. And it even hosts a yearly rave second only to Burning Man for desert debauchery.
The members of Joshua Tree-based four-piece Gram Rabbit try to blend all of these elements together on their second full-length, Cultivation. Results vary.
First, the novelty factor has to be dealt with. The band's lead singer calls herself Jesika von Rabbit, and the members profess to espouse the views of a cult named the Royal Order of Rabbits. Great. Why more and more bands feel the need to employ this level of kitsch is baffling. Wasn't the White Stripes' early music just damn awesome enough that they could've done without the color-coded outfits, confusing relationship back story and faked British accents? Does Sufjan always have to dress according to the theme of his latest album when playing live?
All the funny bunny stuff could be forgiven if Cultivation were a better album. At least the acts name-checked above aren't ripping off the usual laundry list of late-'70s post-punk bands so in vogue right now. Graham Rabbit's music should be more original. But too many tunes, even though they aren't necessarily guitar-based, fall into the old Pixies/Nirvana quiet-loud-quiet verse-chorus-verse trap. "Bloody Bunnies (Superficiality)," "Slopoke" and "Sorry" are all guilty as charged.
More original moments do bubble up. Opener "Waiting in the Kountry," propelled along by a heavy bass groove, with von Rabbit singing about "smoking in the desert" (and we all know what they're smoking), starts things out nicely. It's something Madonna might even try in a whacked-out Kabbalah haze. "Angel Song," the only track on which von Rabbit lets bassist Todd Rutherford take lead vocals, is very Byrds-ian, echoing back to how American in origin the sound that Dungen is playing so well these days is. "Charlie's Kids" makes for creepy juxtaposition: a song with a childlike melody that's obviously about the Manson Family. And "Jesus and I," very Jefferson Airplane, should find a fitting home on David Fincher film soundtrack, with the intoned question "Is this real?" spinning around in the background.
But the album sputters to a weak end. "Crossing Guards with Guns" has nothing going for it. "Follow Your Heart" seems all empty tongue-and-cheek in its attempt at uplift. And "Hares Don't Have Tea" is an odd noise-experiment coda.
If the members of Gram Rabbit truly are the leaders of a cult, they need to start concocting some better-tasting Kool-Aid.
Gram Rabbit Web site: http://www.gramrabbit.com/
Stinky Records Web site: http://www.stinkyrecords.com/Streaming audio: http://www.myspace.com/gramrabbit
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