Let’s be clear here: We’re not including Rasputina on TWBITW just because they’re a cello band. Lots of rock bands actually feature cellos (Avett Brothers, Belle & Sebastian, Ra Ra Riot, etc.) and another band, Apocalyptica, even uses the same format as Rasputina (multiple cellos + drum kit) to play something they call “symphonic metal,” which is arguably weirder that what Rasputina has traditionally stood for, i.e. chicks in quasi-Victorian garb doing sort of gothy chamber music.
No, the reason Rasputina rates a spot on The Weird List boils down to one thing: Melora Creager. Over Rasputina’s 15+ year history, she has proven herself time and again to be one of the most fabulously weird, eccentric characters in all of music. Without her unique songwriting style, her quirky obsessions with historical emphera, and her ingenuity for coaxing new sounds out of the cello, Rasputina would be a one-trick pony that wore out its welcome ages ago. Instead, they’ve managed to still sound fresh over five studio albums and various EPs and live discs. (The fact the band’s lineup has evolved even faster than Creager’s increasingly fanciful costumes probably hasn’t hurt, either.)
Rasputina is probably best-known for doing cellified (is that a word? is now!) versions of classic rock songs like “Barracuda” and Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” and they’ve also been known to breathe new life into creepy old folk songs (“Wicked Dickie,” a little dirge about “an old man who had but one cow,” is my personal favorite). Creager even released a limited-edition recording called Ancient Cross-Dressing Songs that features three…well, ancient cross-dressing songs. Like we said, this woman knows her ephemera.
But it’s Creager’s original songs that really make Rasputina stand out. Many of them delve into very specific historical material, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire or the Year Without a Summer; some are based on 19th century pulp fiction (the truly excellent “My Captivity by Savages“) and other esoteric source material; some employ historical figures but are apparently just the product of Creager’s lurid imagination (“Incident in a Medical Clinic,” which casts Mary Todd Lincoln as a fevered madwoman leading an army of blimps…no, really). Other song titles speak for themselves: “Momma Was an Opium Smoker,” “Transylvanian Concubine,” “The Donner Party.” Then there’s “Choose Me for a Champion,” which is based on an Osama Bin Laden speech. Yep, for Creager, pretty much nothing is off-limits.
The best part? Much of Rasputina’s music is actually downright catchy, despite its frequently bizarre subject matter and the fact that most of what you’re hearing is cellos. Okay, the song about Josef Mengele is a bit of a downer, but much of the Rasputina catalog is actually quite beautiful, or rockin’, or often both.
Rasputina’s sixth studio album, Sister Kinderhook, comes out this summer on Creager’s own Filthy Bonnet label. We’re stockpiling absinthe in preparation for a marathon listening session the day it comes out.
Apart from a rather ridiculous clip dating back to their brief stint on Columbia Records in the late ’90s, Rasputina haven’t done much in the way of music videos–which is too bad, because Creager’s doll-like features and steam-punky fashion sense are pretty photogenic. Still, this live clip of a track from the group’s best (IMHO) album, Frustration Plantation, gives you a pretty good idea of what their all about. We assume she’s running her cello through some kind of guitar pedal to get that effect, but however she’s doing it, it totally makes us want to rock out–in a top-hatted, Victorian sort of way. Maybe snort a line of snuff off a chorus girl’s bloomers?