When Rank Strangers appeared making the record store rounds around New Years Day, they offered the auspicious announcement they band would be releasing three albums in 2015. That’s three more than most bands in their twenty-fifth year. Our review of the first, Lady President (here), characterized the trio as operating altogether outside the mainstream — and compared any exploration into the band’s legacy to Alice’s adventure in Wonderland. We also implied they must have stacked the best tunes on the first installment, only to be proven wrong when they delivered the second last month.
Once again, we’re overwhelmed. Ringtones is so musically inventive and lyrically incisive, we feel like kids, trying to determine if there’s some Rosetta stone or map key in “Beyond Belief” that everyone but us has found. Sometimes listening to Rank Strangers is like looking for Waldo, in that even if you never find the fucker there are so many extraordinary things to discover. Mike Wisti and his bandmates successfully offered up a second album which rewards repeated listening. Another record in which to become lost.
At least we’re starting to recognize some recurring themes in the form of modern-world anxiety and rebellion, or at least resignation. This sort of stuff is our bread and butter. The opening track, “Le Deluge,” is built around Louis XV’s self-absolution (“After me, the flood”) yet also contains the line “history books are soaked, they’re bunk.” Ringtones retains the “Burn Down the Mission” mentality we ascribed to the first album, but adds, at times, the message of Robert Herrick’s magnus opus, that ever-familiar theme: enjoy it while you can kids, for you are not long for this world. Only by the end of the album, we’re not sure if the world is long for itself.
Dub poet Mutabaruka once said “revolutionary words have become entertainment.” Wisti would probably enjoy the wordplay of suggesting entertainment instead become revolutionary, but there isn’t really much in Ringtones to suggest as much — “Le Deluge” seems more suited as a call to inaction. This doesn’t necessarily translate to apathy. “As the World Turns,” on the other side of the album, celebrates the fact it is still “a funny old world” — a phrase which hit home here at your friendly neighborhood record shop, where we’ve always attributed the characters we meet to the fact it’s still “a magical world.”
The album reflects Wisti’s current exposure as a recording engineer. In Ringtones you can recognize hints of recent projects, like this EP by Edger, out in a week with a release show a the Turf Club, and the epic grandeur of Grant Hart’s The Argument, which was produced over an equally epic amount of time in Wisti’s Albatross Studio. There’s also an undeniable enthusiasm for post-punk pop shared by Wisti and rhythm section David Odegaard and Shawn Davis — especially albums which were contemporaries of Imperial Bedroom. There’s a Sandinista-styled dub instrumental (“The Sound of Tools”) and a great new wave-y horn part in “Halloween is Here” in the style of Oingo Boingo. The band is a little louder there, and especially in “Voice of Amerika,” which follows the same familiar new wave form before presenting one of the series’ most alarming moments with a dissonant guitar solo. Odegaard and Davis provide a solid foundation wherever Wisti takes the band — jangly pop or jagged rock.
“The Last Piranha” is reprised in “The Lone Piranha” from Lady President, which has an unidentified guest reading the lyrics with dark resolve. We’ve begun to notice other things about the series of albums: specifically that the title track for each album is appearing on one of the others (a fun idea, which Superchunk did years ago by releasing the title track for a couple albums as a b-side). We anticipate a tune called “Lady President” on The Box, due out this winter (but Lord, we hope its not about Hilary Clinton). These tunes tend to be lightweights compared to the others around them — we’re worried we haven’t found that map key to guide us through the great Rank Strangers album deluge of 2015 yet. One thing of which we’re sure is that for all the anarchic and apocalyptic prophesizing (and proselytizing) the albums, again, most of all to remind us to gather rosebuds while we may. We are most interested to hear how it all ends.
Rank Strangers’ will be performing here at Hymie’s tomorrow at 7pm. Also performing with them will be Newts. The release show for Ringtones is Saturday, June 6th at the Turf Club — also performing there will be Matt Latterell Band, Rich Mattson and the Northstars (also releasing an album) and Sounds del Mar (on tour from Austin, Texas). Sounds del Mar, incidentally, will be performing here at Hymie’s that afternoon along with The Gated Community. That’s a lot of events to keep track of, you may wish to employ a computer.