Grave Expectations

Pretty Girls Make Graves is dealing with the pressures that come with making brilliant music.

Expectations. Sometimes they can ruin everything. Most people spend half their time trying to cram everyone around them into molds and the other half of their time bitching about how nobody fits. Having a history doesn't help; the things other people presume about you can hang around your neck like an albatross -- or over your head like a sword. But every once in a while, expectations can fuel achievement, kindle ambitions, make you try even harder just to break free of all the suppositions, both good and bad, that lurk and tower like prison walls all around you.

Sometimes, though, you just have to ignore them.

"You can't really pay attention to that kind of stuff," says Derek Fudesco, bassist of one of Seattle's most lauded and promising new bands, Pretty Girls Make Graves. "It doesn't really make a difference."

Walk softly and carry a big riff: Holly Golightly
Walk softly and carry a big riff: Holly Golightly

Expectations, though, are unavoidable for Pretty Girls. Formed in 2001, the group was initially just a side project. But what a side project: At the time, Fudesco also played in the Murder City Devils, the morbid, pummeling garage-rock sextet that swaggered like a drunken juggernaut across the U.S. indie scene before coming to a grinding halt two years ago. The other members of Pretty Girls Make Graves have backgrounds nearly as illustrious: Guitarist Jay Clark was a member of both Kill Sadie and Sharks Keep Moving; drummer Nick Dewitt and guitarist Nathan Thelen were in the Bee Hive Vaults; singer Andrea Zollo had previously belted it out alongside Fudesco in the punk outfits Area 51, Death Wish Kids and the Hookers -- a band that was the prototype for the Murder City Devils.

But even with such distinguished pedigrees, Pretty Girls Make Graves instantly began outstripping all the expectations that had been heaped upon it. The band's first two CDs -- an eponymous EP in 2001 and last year's full-length, Good Health -- were squalls of sheer emotion and intricacy. And considering that the group had been together less than a year, the discs were also astonishingly accomplished, even if they still harbored a few rough edges and undercooked ingredients. The arrangements, in particular, were sometimes so dense as to verge on outright clutter, teeming with swarms of guitars, bass and keyboards.

"We had to kind of practice around the touring schedules of my and Jay's old bands back then," Fudesco explains. "We would write songs for a week, and then we wouldn't play together for a month and a half. If you listen to Good Health, everything kind of sounds like four songs being played at the same time. Everyone's just piling rhythms and stuff on top of each other. It was really rush, rush, rush."

Rushed as they may have been, the album's nine tracks can barely contain all the energy and ideas being channeled through them. Songs like "Ghosts in the Radio" and "By the Throat" are stitched here and there with filaments of electronic texture. "Bring It on Golden Pond," the disc's penultimate track, is its most adventurous, a slab of loping dub and minimalist abrasion that opens up space for a chanting verse to swim through. Through it all, Zollo's lyrics dwell poetically on heavy subjects such as betrayal, separation and claustrophobia. Tempering all that gravitas, though, is a beam of piercing exultation. On "Speakers Push the Air" -- Good Health's hands-down anthem -- raw harmonies claw their way out of Zollo and her bandmates' throats as they simultaneously howl and coo the lyrics "Do you remember what the music meant?/Life's complications and frustrations/They disappear when the music starts playing/I found a place where it feels alright/I heard a record, and it opened my eyes."

"No, we don't really notice that," comments Fudesco on the anthemic air of many of Pretty Girls' songs. "That's just the way it comes out, I guess.

"Good Health is a great record, and I'm really proud of it," he adds, "but I think The New Romance is a much better record overall. Everybody really developed their parts. We gave it a lot more room to breathe."

In fact, the new album doesn't really breathe so much as it gasps, gulps, heaves and gives mouth-to-mouth to the whole suffocating post-hardcore formula. Thelen and Clark's guitars circle each other like warring ninjas, whipping blades of euphony and dissonance at each other in orchestral synchronicity; the result is a tense crisscross of spiky arpeggios akin to Novelty-era Jawbox or even Drive Like Jehu. Fudesco's bass lines plant anchors, stretching lines taut across the beds of the songs as riffs swirl up around him in turbid bursts. As the low end locks into Dewitt's terse drumming, rhythms flow and swell like blood vessels. And while piano and acoustic guitar lend a more organic tone, steely sheets of post-punk and electro grate against one another, approximating a catchier yet more brooding version of Refused.

The quantum leap that occurred in the few months between the recording sessions of Good Healthand The New Romanceis the type of progression that most bands take four or five albums (if ever) to arrive at. For all its instrumental evolution, though, the most stunning change on Romanceis in Zollo's singing. She is a primary element of Pretty Girls' stirring sound, coming across at times like a younger, sharper PJ Harvey or Exene Cervenka. Still, her vocals on Good Health-- while already forceful and acidly melodic -- sound more like a work in progress than the finished product.

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