Pretty Girls Make Graves with the Constantines and Mahjongg at the Phoenix (410 Sherbourne), Wednesday (March 31). $13.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
seattle rockers pretty girls make Graves are an indie band going through an awkward growth spurt. A year ago, freshly signed to major indie Matador, the five-piece was showered by buzz after a hot South By Southwest showcase. Even Rolling Stone, that bastion of all things mainstream, printed a fawning review. The hype was remarkable, considering that The New Romance, Pretty Girls' Matador debut, was months away and the band was still milking the frenetically raw punk tunes from their 2002 disc for tiny little Lookout Records.
At this year's SXSW conference in Austin, Pretty Girls' set during Matador's showcase barely registered (they were dwarfed by Mission of Burma), pointing up the pitfalls of over-hyping an indie band right out of the gate.
It's enough to make frontwoman Andrea Zollo long for the Riot Grrrl scene she grew up in. A long-time feminist punk who's lent her searing vocals to several West Coast bands, Zollo admits that most of her songs are laced with nostalgia for the old days, before things like label success and selling records got in the way.
"I'm sure it has a lot to do with growing older and being at different places in your life," she explains on a cellphone from Austin. "But I feel very strongly rooted in that scene, which is why, when people ask me what kind of band I'm in, I automatically say we're a punk band. People are sometimes shocked, but it's more of a mentality to me.
"The main feeling in that punk-slash-Riot Grrrl scene was that everyone could do everything. As soon as we got any kind of media attention outside the punk scene, a lot of people said I couldn't sing, that my voice was terrible and off-key. I was, like, 'Key? Who cares about that?'"
Diehard Pretty Girls fans have the opposite complaint about Zollo's vocals on The New Romance. They say they're too melodic and sophisticated, less of a Bikini Kill banshee scream and more of a Corin Tucker yelp. This is a good thing, since Zollo's old-school punk rock screeching left her with nodes on her vocal cords. In fact, she won't sing early Pretty Girls tunes at her live shows cuz she's terrified of losing her voice for good.
It's also beneficial to the Pretty Girls sound. The urgency of Zollo's beseeching voice lends the band's hollow, echoing keyboard lines, spiralling double guitar attack and galloping drum lines an intense emotional quality that's lacking in your average post-punk trend-setter outfit.
Beyond starry-eyed nostalgia, she admits, her lyrics explore her own psychic demons. Her battle with chemical imbalances and depression comes through in the constant references to neuroses, chemicals and medication on The New Romance. Check song titles like All Medicated Geniuses and Chemical, Chemical for proof.
"Seattle used to be the suicide capital of America until Portland took that away from us. It's weird that these huge artistic hotbeds are such nodes of depression. I don't know if it's the weather. Whatever the energy is, people need to have a creative outlet to get through whatever they're struggling with."
Preternaturally smart and articulate, Zollo's less interested in talking about her microcosmic struggles than in dishing on how to weave subtle activist messages (Get rid of Bush! Get off your asses!) into her lyrics, and on the downside of leaving the feminist enclave of the Riot Grrrl scene.
"We just did a tour over in the UK," she laughs, "and everyone wanted to create some kind of controversy between me and Karen O. It's a weird fascination, pitting us against each other because of our gender, totally bizarre. I'm a huge fan of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and of Karen O. But she's a strong frontwoman, and it's hilarious that people assumed there'd be tension because I'm also a strong frontwoman. Like we're bound to be enemies! People are so desperate to see cat fights."