When we last caught up with Gram Rabbit, their rabbit-eared singer Jessica
and her partner Todd Rutherford were crafting scratchy, minimalist cult
anthems like "Land of Jail" and "Witness" out of the most rudimentary of
tools. Now they're back with those same elements Jessica's new-wave
goddess voice, the static of programmed beats, infectiously bizarre pop
lyrics and the occasional sampled desert eccentric but the sound is
richer, fuller and more orchestrated. There's a reverbed shimmer to Ennio
Morricone-influenced "Angels Song," with its glossy piano runs and surf-guitar chords, that wasn't there on the debut. Where before the songs
seemed like charcoal sketches, now they're executed in big washes of color,
sounds echoing over each other until the whole canvas is covered.
The new density may partly come from the fact that Gram Rabbit has picked
up a couple of members. In addition to Miss Jessica and Rutherford, the
album credits Travis Cline for samples and noise detail and Eric Johannson
on lead guitar. Co-producer Ethan Allen kicks in some programming, and
there's a real live drummer, Brian McLeod, on at least some of the cuts.
This wall-of-sound treatment starts with the first cut, the psyche-spooky
"Waiting in the Country," whose guitar chords hang in the air like smoke
rings, clearing only just in time for a flourish of Spanish trumpet. Then
they pile up again, one on top of the other, as the song enters its final
lap of "whooo-oooh" wordless choruses. "Bloody Bunnies (Superficiality)"
sounds more like the first record, its synthetic snare pops punctuating the
singsong-y verse but leaving plenty of space. There's a big rock chorus,
kind of like Bananarama doing a metal cover, then the song reverts to its
playground chant motif. (Or to put it more bluntly, the melody sounds a
lot like the notes when you say "nyah-nyah-nyah-nyaaaaah-nyaaah.") The
band's dark side comes through in "Charlie's Kids," an ode to Charles Mansonís
followers. Here disturbing lyrics like "They were spawned
from LSD and hedonistic insanity" clash interestingly with super-sweet
electro-arrangements; it is, to put it mildly, a little off.
"Angels Song" is the album's clear highlight, a rich tapestry of echoing
guitar notes, cascades of piano and sweet, 1960s-folk harmonies. Here the
balance between Gram Rabbit's endearing eccentricity and musical
embellishments is just right. "Paper Heart," by contrast, quickly
submerges under the faux-drama weight of string sweeps and timpani
rolls. The album recovers nicely with "Slowpoke," with its alternating
bouts of spooky chants and giant drum-filled choruses. It sounds like Gram
Rabbit empowered, not overwhelmed. Gram Rabbit take another shot at
"Jesus & I," whose weird opening harmonies can be found on Music to Start
a Cult To, spinning the song out into a late-Beatles psychedelic
reverie, intercut with the sound of sirens and clearing the way for
Jessica's sweet, oddly sexy voice.
Overall, Cultivation is sweeter, prettier and more accomplished than
Music to Start a Cult To but it doesn't have the staying
power. There was something enchanting about a band deadpanning out songs
for "Cowboys & Aliens" in a lonely desert recording studio, donning rabbit
ears and fueling up on mushrooms for a wild and wooly ride. This feels
more like a record than a life statement... an interesting record, but still.