By Noah Hubbell
By Leslie Simon
By Brad Lopez
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
By Inkoo Kang
By Dave Herrerra
By Josiah M. Hesse
From their perch on the stage of the Bluebird Theater, the members of Matson Jones look almost like shadows. Drummer Ross Harada, limbs splayed, pounds a beat as bare as a rattling skeleton. Next to him, Matt Regan coaxes groaning notes from the belly of his upright bass. Seated before them are cellist/vocalists Martina Grbac and Anna Mascorella, scraping bows across strings like flint against stone. The instrumental friction sparks a flame that whispers of vengeance, violence and deeply buried secrets.
And then, with all the grace of a fallen angel, Grbac lifts her face to the microphone and unfurls her lungs.
"Wait! Stop!" she yells. Screeching and stuttering, the band piles up behind her. Silence. In a split second, the spell evaporates. The handful of people in the audience wander back into the box office or behind the bar. "Is there any way," Grbac continues, her voice echoing across the vast, empty room, "that I can hear some more of the other cello?"
It's early evening at the Bluebird, and Matson Jones is finishing its sound check. Tonight is the group's CD-release show, one of the most anticipated local-music events in recent history. Which is odd, considering that the self-titled disc has been available for more than a year; recorded in a basement studio soon after the act formed in Fort Collins two years ago, the first edition of the CD came in sequined, painstakingly handmade packages. But after the group whipped up a huge buzz that culminated in a triumphant South by Southwest appearance and offers from numerous imprints, Matson Jones has been reissued by Sympathy for the Record Industry -- better known as the label that launched the White Stripes. And in May the quartet was featured as Spin.com's "Band of the Day" in a profile comparing it accurately to PJ Harvey and inexplicably to the Donnas -- that is, the author wrote, "if the Donnas had all been committed to the asylum."
"My mom was like, 'That was the weirdest article ever written about you,'" Mascorella says with a laugh. Having finished the sound check, Matson Jones is squeezing in a pre-show dinner at Enzo's, across the street from the Bluebird. Seated around a giant, steaming pizza, the players look like some indie-rock mafia: The men are buttoned up and sporting ties, while the women wear vintage sweaters, skirts and bouffant hairdos that would make the B-52's proud. "It also said we had the second biggest goth following in Colorado," Mascorella goes on, rolling her eyes
"Goth? I thought we were just whiney and melodramatic," Grbac jokes.
"We're lucky if there are five goth kids at our shows," Mascorella asserts. "Were they reviewing the right band?"
Probably so: With such a distinctive style and sound, it would be hard to mistake Matson Jones for anyone else. The most obvious analogy to draw is to Rasputina, though Matson Jones's penchant for cello-driven melodrama is much more heartfelt than thespian. "We've had people say, 'I really like Rasputina, so I came to check you out, but you guys are so different,'" Harada notes. Indeed, the group's dark, harrowing pulse owes more to the members' adolescent fixations: Joy Division, Tori Amos -- even Nirvana, a group not averse to using a tightly strung cello itself from time to time.
But within this framework of angst and tension, Matson Jones's music teems with warmth -- and sometimes boils over. On "N.E.S.F.T.O.," a whole Pandora's box of psychosexual sludge is emptied in under two minutes as Grbac metallically intones, "Make up your mind/Show me a good time, baby/These knees won't bend for anyone/These knees won't spread for just anyone." The cryptic title, never spelled out in the lyrics of the song, only adds to the aura of pained frustration.
"I don't know if we should tell you what that stands for," Grbac says. "We've never told anyone what the name of that song meant before. It's not a huge secret, but..."
"At least tell the S.E.P. story," Mascorella interjects, referring to Matson Jones's hushed, brooding closer, "S.E.P. Ruined My Life."
"S.E.P. stands for Summer Enrichment Program," Grbac explains. "Basically it has to do with a boyfriend going off to be a summer camp counselor and over-bonding with other counselors. I came to really despise this summer camp. It wasn't really a huge deal, though. When I wrote it, I was just kind of joking around. It's not as dramatic as it sounds. It's supposed to be kind of sarcastic."
"Yeah, most of the time, my lyrics are really ironic," Mascorella adds. "I like to write about really personal things, but my problem is, I sometimes find myself coming from the Morrissey school of lyrics. People just don't get it sometimes. I'm rarely terribly serious. Even if it's a serious song, I'm making fun of the situation."
But fun is the last word that springs to mind while being exposed to the CD's single, "A Little Bit of Arson Never Hurt Anyone." Smart-ass title aside, it's a brutally unsettling listen. Akin to Bikini Kill kicking Black Heart Procession's balls, the song smolders with insinuation before leaping into an inferno of unfettered rage: "I've got people to see and places that I've got to burn down/Secrets that I need to burn out of my head."