By Brad Lopez
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Anita and Kevin Robinson, the happily wedded couple behind Portland, Oregon's Viva Voce, are partners in life, "but we're also musical partners," Anita says. "We have been since the moment we met. I just respect the hell out of him as an artist, and I think everything he does is great -- most of the time." After a laugh, she adds, "And he seems to feel the same way about me."
These sweet words wouldn't mean much beyond the Robinsons' conjugal bed if Viva Voce's work settled for mere sentimentality. Fortunately, as its title implies, Get Yr Blood Sucked Out, the duo's inaugural release for Barsuk Records, is a lot more than a valentine. The songs sung by Kevin, such as the sly dramatic opus dubbed "We Do Not Fuck Around," tend toward good-natured sassiness. And if most of the words to the Anita-crooned numbers generally deal with matters of the heart, they interact with the music in unexpected ways. For instance, "Faster Than a Dead Horse" juxtaposes defiantly simple rhymes ("Shy, shy, you're so shy/The way you taste makes me cry") with a giddy melody intersected at various junctures by crazed guitar skronk that would knock the codpiece off the average cock-rocker.
Turns out, though, the person responsible for these wonderfully wanky moments doesn't require that particular wardrobe accessory. In a reversal of the typical dude-handles-the-ax, gal-keeps-the-beat stereotype, Kevin mans Viva Voce's drums and Anita serves as the group's shredder-in-chief. She's always been a solid instrumentalist, able to easily fill the space occupied in most bands by a bass and a second guitar. But on Blood, she truly steps to the fore, extending her musical vocabulary to encompass everything from the lovely filigree of "Never Be Like Yesterday" to the brawny riffing and vivid squalling heard on "When Planets Collide."
Given the range and expressiveness of her playing, Anita deserves to be lauded as one of the current scene's finest six-stringers, yet she seldom turns up on rosters of contemporary guitar heroes, and sexism is a likely reason. While quite a few impressive female guitarists have emerged from the Pacific Northwest over the years, including Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein, the last one who was truly embraced by the guitar-magazine crowd may be Nancy Wilson of Heart -- a very different sort of performer than Anita, and from a much earlier era.
That could change as more people hear Viva Voce, whose moniker is an Italian phrase that means "word of mouth." As Anita notes, "I think our visibility is increasing, and sometimes it helps if people can see us play live, so they can see that I'm the one who's doing the guitar playing and the singing. But I'm not worried about it that much. I just do what I do, and hopefully if I do it well enough, people will pay attention."
Among those she hopes will be watching closely are students at Portland's Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls, where she's taught on several occasions. "A lot of the girls haven't played anything, and the groups that choose guitar are significantly smaller than the groups for bass and drums," she reveals. "I think that's because there are some really visible female players on drums, like Meg White, and bass players without number; Kim Gordon is obviously at the top of the list. And having a visual really helps inspire them."
So does Anita, who picked up the electric guitar at age nine. In later years, she played in several acts based in or near her home town of Decatur, Alabama -- including the Dry Creek Band, a cover ensemble co-starring her brother, whose musical eclecticism helped influence her own. "He had a really diverse record collection. He listened to everything from the Clash to Merle Haggard to Pink Floyd," she recalls. "Most of his records are mine now, because I sort of, well, snuck off with them." Still, she tended to confine herself to rhythm guitar and background vocals until shortly after attending a warehouse concert featuring the Prayer Chain, a Christian-rock band with an indie edge. Anita had little knowledge of the group beforehand, and today she can't even remember how much she liked the show. But it remains an important part of her personal history because it's where she first encountered Kevin.
Within days of the gig, Anita and Kevin were making music together, and he encouraged her "to be the one singing the songs I was writing instead of trying to find someone who could sing them," she notes. When she did, she realized how simpatico the two of them were. According to her, "the situation with Kevin was the only time where I felt like, 'This could keep going, because this is exactly what I want to be doing.'"
Before long, the two formalized their musical relationship, but the dearth of venues near them slowed their progress. So they packed up a batch of original material and the rest of their belongings and headed for Nashville, which they chose because it offered more places to play and was close enough to Alabama to make family visits feasible. Once there, they signed with the Cadence imprint, which issued their debut, 1998's Hooray for Now. However, Cadence's money problems doomed the disc around the same time that the Robinsons soured on Nashville, which Anita says was "more of a dismal place than an electrifying place to live and make music for us."
In contrast, Portland boasted precisely the vibe the Robinsons wanted, and upon relocating there, they got into a recording groove. Lovers, Lead the Way!came out under the auspices of the Asthmatic Kitty imprint in 2003 but was subsequently reissued by Minty Fresh, a Chicago company that put out 2004's The Heat Can Melt Your Brain as well. Both albums are consistently charming and determinedly lo-fi, due in large part to the circumstances under which they were committed to tape. "Our studio is our house," Anita says. "We record all over the place. In our living room, sometimes in the basement, sometimes in the stairwell to the basement." The kitchen, too: Anita's been known to bounce the sound from one of her amps into her open stove.
Blood, the new CD, is another example of home cooking, but the sound is considerably fuller. Part of that has to do with overdubbing; Anita plays bass on several tracks, and Kevin does likewise on top of contributing on keyboards, harmonica, recorder and bowed saw. Even so, the main reason for the songs' evolution can be traced to Anita's guitar. "I just felt like playing a louder, more aggressive style on a lot of them," she says. "I guess I was feeling more flamboyant."
Among the folks who noticed were the Shins, another gaggle of Portland transplants (the group formed in Albuquerque) with a similar sensibility. Nevertheless, the performers didn't know each other when Shins leader James Mercer phoned Anita to ask if she'd contribute vocals to the just-released platter Wincing the Night Away. She's heard on two Wincingsongs, led by "Phantom Limb," the initial single, which she helped warble during the Shins' recent appearance on Late Show With David Letterman. As a bonus, Mercer and pals handpicked Viva Voce as tourmates.
This opportunity means that Anita and Kevin will spend even more close-up-and-personal time than usual. Some married couples couldn't handle that much enforced togetherness, but Anita's actually looking forward to it. "That's not to say we don't fight and scrap when we're recording -- we definitely do," she concedes. "Emotions run high when it comes to art and the music you're making. But there are more high highs than low lows. That's the way our life is together."