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Grave Expectations

Walk softly and carry a big riff: Holly Golightly

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."

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 Health and The New Romance is 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 Romance is 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.

"We recorded for seven days, and she had to go the studio every night after work," says Fudesco. "So she would work an eight- or nine-hour day and then go sing all night. She was exhausted. But for this new album, she got to be there the entire time. She was able to spread it out and do her vocals anytime she wanted over the course of a month. The result is that she sounds ten times better."

On Romance, her previously somewhat flat-lined cadence has been bent and split up, like white light through a prism, into a spectrum of depth and feeling. What remains constant is her stinging serum of anguish and hope, a shot of pure soul that rings as dazzlingly as a canticle. "Stand up so I can see you/Shout out so I can hear you/Reach out so I can touch you," she sings on "This Is Our Emergency." She's a calm eye in the midst of a typhoon of sound, perfectly exemplifying just how far, how quickly, Pretty Girls Make Graves has come in its scant three years of existence.

"It's all a product of having more time," states Fudesco matter-of-factly. "We had more time to record, more time to write, to be able to listen and go back and change things. We also put a lot of thought into the sequencing; we went over it for a long, long time. But we couldn't figure out the way it should go, so we got a chalkboard where we could write all the songs down and redo the order. The last week of recording was just going back and forth on that."

Besides the simple desire to top what they had accomplished with Good Health, Fudesco and company had another good reason to expend so much effort on the production of The New Romance. Between albums, the band had moved from Lookout Records, the legendary Bay Area punk imprint, to Matador, an even more eminent label known for its eclecticism, with a lineup boasting everything from stoner rock to indie pop, from Cat Power to Interpol.

"I have to admit that when we turned this new record in to Matador, it was probably the first time in my entire life that I ever worried about whether a label was going to like it or not," confesses Fudesco. "It's because we've all been such huge fans of the roster and the label as long as we've been into music. It was a little scary giving them the record."

So yes, even Pretty Girls Make Graves is susceptible to the anxieties of expectation. But one type of expectation that Fudesco won't stomach has to do with the way Zollo is often portrayed in the music press. Constant mention is made of how she, as a female musician, is supposed to look; some of the more condescending or just plain dumb terms that journalists have used to describe her are "curvy," "cutie," "voluptuous" and "nostalgically pretty." And although Fudesco and Zollo came up with the band's moniker -- which they appropriated from the title of a Smiths song, itself a reference to Jack Kerouac's mantra in The Dharma Bums -- they see the name as neither an explanation nor an excuse for such a shallow fixation on appearances.

"I think it sucks," says Fudesco with an edge to his voice. "It's bullshit. But Andrea's a girl, so of course people have to pick at the way she looks. They can't just talk about her as a singer. Read any interview with the Distillers, and it's the same thing. A girl in a band is looked at as a girl in a band rather than a person in a band. It's just ridiculous and stupid.

"It's the same as people saying we sound like At the Drive In or Sleater-Kinney," he goes on, citing the two most common -- and lazy -- comparisons that his group constantly attracts. "And we don't sound anything like them. But there's nothing you can really do about it except ignore it."

When it comes to ignoring what's expected of you, the members of Pretty Girls Make Graves have learned to outgrow the shadows of their past successes and forge a fresh identity and a new, vital sound. But with the release of The New Romance, there's a new level of expectation they'll have to learn to cope with: that of making progressively ardent, intelligent and risky music that still cleaves to a sense of pop appeal and immediacy. It doesn't look, though, like they'll have much of a problem rising up to it.


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