The Raveonettes: in and out of control in their lustful world
For the better part of this decade, The Raveonettes have projected a cool, sexy black and white style that has meshed perfectly with their music. “Cool as ice cream” is a lyric from “Bang!” a song on the latest Raveonettes album, In and Out of Control (Vice), and it sums up their aesthetic and music nicely: sugary pop music with a rougher component. As we were told by Andre 3000 a few years ago, being ice cold is cooler than being cool. In 2009, The Raveonettes are still cool as ice cream and have plenty of style to burn, but now they’re asking what that means.
The Raveonettes released their first EP, Whip it On, to considerable buzz (or hype, depending on your ideology, but they were labeled as a promising up-and-coming band by Rolling Stone) in 2002, but the most interesting thing to me at the time was how gleefully they embraced their influences. Their sound has remained consistent: 1950s and 60s bubblegum pop hooks and melodies with darker themes sent through a Jesus and Mary Chain/My Bloody Valentine filter of heavy distortion and reverb. I have found it really irresistible. At the same time that Interpol was unconvincingly telling people they had no idea where the Joy Division comparisons were coming from, The Raveonettes, by contrast, were reveling in their muses from prior generations. The band’s name is a combination of Buddy Holly’s hit “Rave On” and The Ronnettes, the 1960s girl group whose hit “Be My Baby” is at the top of a lot of people’s “best song ever” lists (at least it’s at the top of mine) and whose singer Ronnie Spector appeared on the second Raveonettes LP, Pretty in Black in a song called “Ode to LA”. “We just always really loved pop music” lead Raveonette Sune Rose Wagner told me in a telephone interview while the band was in Seattle for a stop at Neumos on their recent tour.
That interview was easily the most difficult I’ve ever conducted (or, more accurately, he was the least talkative person I've interviewed), but in a way, it makes a lot of sense because their music holds up on its own and speaks for itself better than its songwriter does. Moreover, a band whose latest album includes a song called “Boys Who Rape (Should All Be Destroyed)” isn’t leaving any subtle hints that indicate exactly what they think.
“I write all of the songs” Wagner told me “and Sharin and I record all of the music together in the studio”. Sharin is Sharin Foo, his long time partner in The Raveonettes. They originally hail from Denmark but both now live in the United States, just on opposite coasts (Foo lives in Los Angeles and Wagner in New York) but they wrote and recorded their most recent album in Copenhagen. She’s the icy blonde femme fatale on stage who sings a majority of The Raveonettes’ harmonies, often with a cold detachment. That’s been the formula that’s worked for the band since they signed with Vice and released their 2008 album Lust Lust Lust. Previously they’ve had other musicians in the studio with them, including the aforementioned Ronnie Spector as well as Velvet Underground drummer Maureen Tucker and Martin Rev of Suicide for the Pretty in Black album. Live, they’ve been touring with a rhythm section to compliment Wagner and Foo, who both play guitar on stage (mostly).
In and Out of Control is the latest album from The Raveonettes, released on Vice last month. It’s not a huge divergence from what you’d expect from them, although thematically it is somewhat of a deviation. When I asked Wagner what was different and he said “I guess it sounds different: different tunes, different production, different everything.” Their music often sounds like it’s a rock and roll soundtrack to a neo-film noir or written from someone intrigued by red light districts, for example, one of their most well-known singles, “Love in a Trashcan” begins with the line “if you touch that girl, you know its okay; people say she’s a whore anyway.” On this album, Wagner says, that’s not the case. “It has more to do with personal stuff and human things like suicide and hate and violence. Stuff like that.”
The record is darker than its predecessors. Pretty in Black, for example, is much more cheerful lyrically. There isn’t a definitive single that is as obviously catchy as “Love in a Trashcan” or “Dead Sound” and “Aly Walk with Me” (the latter two are from Lust Lust Lust). The first single on In and Out of Control, “Last Dance”, opens with this verse: “Your lipstick smeared sad, I adore you; I always have; And every time you overdose, I rush to intensive care; Another sad-eye stare before you disappear.” Like with a lot of Raveonettes songs, the upbeat melody makes it easier to miss the despair in the lyrics, only this time they really do appear to be from a personal standpoint. Wagner has said in a few other interviews I had read (which is why I didn’t ask when I had him on the phone) that “Boys Who Rape (Should All Be Destroyed)” was inspired by a friend who was repeatedly raped by an uncle.
Yet In and Out of Control doesn’t feel heavy-handed because the band’s passion for sunny, pop melodies and hooks still come across well (even if they’re a little more restrained here); a lot of people in the crowd were singing along to “Boys Who Rape” when they performed at Neumos a couple of weeks ago. When I reviewed their previous album here last year I wrote “They’ve never hidden their Red Light District impulses, but with Lust Lust Lust, it’s laid out perfectly on the table.”
With In and Out of Control, they aren’t so much as turning away from those impulses but they’re exploring the consequences of them. Sometimes the Walks on the Wildside are intriguing, sexy, lustful and/or addictive, like The Raveonettes music itself, but sometimes there’s a hangover and maybe we could use the inherent nature of sugary pop music once in a while to remind us of that reality.