Looking into the long history of Rank Strangers, who played their first local show at the Uptown Bar’s “new band night” twenty-five years ago, isn’t as simply surreal as falling into Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole — its like trying the explain the experience to someone who thinks you’ve had too much to drink. And Mike Wisti, who has fronted the band since its inception, hardly helps since he seems to enjoy the unexpected as much as we enjoy the scattered albums throughout the band’s storied career.
Any conversation with Wisti might take convoluted turns and quickly end up miles from Die Tucke des Objekcts, the last Rank Strangers album, which was released in 2009. Reading interviews with Wisti, let alone speaking with him yourself (which Dave did for City Pages a couple years ago) offers something deeper than the absurd rabbit hole — even his most casual observations are laced with insight and wit that take far longer to work through your system than a cake which says “Eat me” and makes you big.
Wisti’s journeys into the unexpected have made him one of the most successful recording engineers in the Twin Cities — his Albatross Studio has lent its subtle immediacy and warmth to several of our favorite records of recent years. And its wound Rank Strangers up tight with three albums’ worth of new songs. The first, Lady President, was delivered to record shop just before the new year, and the band has begun an ambitious series of in-store performances (they’ll be here Sunday afternoon along with the Union Suits) with the remaining releases planned for this fall and winter. If it seems like a lot all at once, it may be because Rank Strangers haven’t released an new record for several years.
The band has seven albums and a series of scattered singles under its belt — and was once said to have been scouted by major labels in those heady mid-90s when that might have actually meant something — hard as it is to imagine Mike Wisti as a big label character like Craig Finn, we sure would enjoy his Spin interview. Music writers have wondered why this band isn’t famous for years, all the way back to an epic 1996 portrait by Brad Zeller, one of our favorites critics. They responded by writing a song about it.
Whether or not Wisti would still go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, Rank Strangers are as inventive as ever on Lady President, “unconnect[ing] the dots and utiliz[ing] the element of surprise,” as they say. To our pleasure, the album is less rooted in the Guide By Voices less-is-more/more-is-better lo-fi foundation, and built upon surprisingly familiar bases. “Its a Riot,” for instance, starts like an outtake from Armed Forces but becomes a striking recreation of a 70s Kinks song.
The maddeningly dense lyrics — typed out on an insert which looks like a lost section of “Industrialized Society and Its Future” — find the band less confrontational than on Die Tucke des Objekcts, almost a little weary with the opening two tracks, “When the Pendulum Swings” and “Children of the Czar.” The first introduces a “Burn Down the Mission” mentality which returns on the second side with “The Last Piranha,” and the second seems downright resigned. Both are built on bright melodies which belie the often oppressive alienation in the lyrics.
Like Feste, the clown in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night who “is wise enough to play the fool,” Rank Strangers don’t follow the same rules as the rest of the cast. Free to say anything without consequence, the band subtly mocks herd mentality in “Ringtones” and outright dismisses the King’s authority in our favorite track on the album, “The Governor.” Its joyous declarations accented by unexpected angular changes and a at one point an interplay between a guitar perfectly fuzzed and another magically, mysteriously melodic.
Duality drives much of Lady President, in lyrical references to the birds and the bees, shirts and skins and the Tin Man, but also in arrangements like “The Governor.” For a band which rarely follows conventional song structure, Rank Strangers seem consistently in tune with the concept of counterpoint — employing it in an almost-baroque tradition, for instance, with the relationship between Wisti’s vocal and bassist Davin Odegaards’ line in “Its a Riot,” while at the same time telling us in the chorus “its so old its new.”
Last year the band put out a sampler CD, and posted the cover art for Lady President and its two sequels, Ringtones and The Box. We’ve already posted on the precarity of releasing multiple albums at the same time (or in sequence), and increasing your total catalog by 20% seems audacious (we estimated there, but we expect Wisti is going to do the math and let us know the actual number). We just don’t believe the next two records will be as this one — they must have stacked all the best tracks on this first album!
Rank Strangers second record shop performance to promote the release of Lady President is here at Hymie’s this Sunday at 4pm. The Union Suits will be playing an opening set.