There was a time, years ago, when I was on a hike with a friend and we saw a large old decaying house. It looked like it might as easily have been haunted as abandoned. My friend remarked to me, “who do you think lives there?”
I instantly replied, “Count Nostalgia”.
I now look back on those decaying ruins and imagine them as home to the songs of Austin-by-way-of-Sacramento’s Agent Ribbons.
Agent Ribbons, consisting of Natalie Gordon (guitar/vocals), Lauren Hess (drums/vocals) and Naomi Cherie (violin/cello), who all adopt the surname “Ribbons”, could be called many things–“Baroque Garage”, “Victorian Punk”, “Post-Showtune Minimalist”, but I doubt there are any post-modern adjective clusters that could truly describe this eclectic and creative band of women.
I think that, more than in any particular musical movement, Agent Ribbons is rooted in the Do it Yourself (DIY) movement. Their aesthetic is, and always has been, about creating, crafting, and exploring. Every aspect of the band seems contrived. Though “contrived” is a word that often has a pejorative connotation in our culture, I wish to challenge that. Mythologies are contrived and crafted. When creating a mythology, one must borrow from past myths and archetypes; this is how our stories evolve–though Homer could not have written Joyce’s Ulysses, neither could Joyce have have written Ulysses without Homer’s Odyssey. Agent Ribbons have invented a mythology that incorporates fashion, art, music, and poetry in a unique way–the closest analogues being The White Stripes and Neutral Milk Hotel. They dress in outfits that conjure images of the 1860s, the 1960s and practically every decade in between. Though their outfits look crafted and premeditated, they are the perfect costumes for their particular brand of theater–Natalie Gordon’s songs are just as well-crafted.
Agent Ribbons have just released their second full length album entitled Chateau Crone. I was a big fan of their debut On Time Travel and Romance, though I felt that it only hinted at what they were capable of as a band. I should begin by mentioning that if Miss Gordon has ever written a bad song, I’ve never heard it (and I’ve heard their entire catalog of recordings). That being said, their debut album, without Naomi Cherie’s string arrangements, seemed a bit overly-sparse. Natalie’s vocal performances were also not on par with those that I had witnessed in a live setting.
On Chateau Crone they raise the bar substantially. Their arrangements are now flushed-out and there is a sonic complexity that is simply not present on their debut. The opening track “I’m Alright”, which sounds somewhat like if Ray Davies wrote a surf song, announces unequivocally that Agent Ribbons can play rock and roll (and well!). If they were only a Garage Rock band with cool outfits and catchy songs, I might still be a fan. However, by the second song, entitled “Grey Gardens”, it will be clear to any listener that they are something more. Inspired by the movie of the same name, “Grey Gardens” tells a tale of repression, ridicule, and the price of nonconformity. The song is dark, dream-like, and magical. The listener feels as though they are exploring a haunted house–a bit uneasy but eager to move forward. It’s not hard to see how Natalie could identify with Edith Bouvier Beale–the non-repenting outsider.
The theme of being the “other” is advanced further during “Wallpaper of Skin”, Agent Ribbons most brilliant song to date. The song seems to be about someone watching a woman sing a song, they smile but they don’t truly understand the song’s meaning or, for that matter, the woman’s heart. “Wallpaper” could just as easily be about Edith Beale as about Natalie Ribbons–a woman who, in her own words, “was born to sing sad songs” (If you need proof, listen to her heart-wrenching delivery of the last chorus of “Rubik’s Cube”)
They might dress in vintage garbs, but Agent Ribbons’ aesthetic is thoroughly modern and post-feminist. Though Natalie Gordon is a powerful and independent presence, she always dresses in feminine attire and is not afraid to wear make-up or appear “girly”. In this way, Agent Ribbons has a lot more in common with 3rd wave feminist fashion than with the androgynous 2nd wavers who began the Riot Girrrl Movement. Though Natalie appears materialistically feminine, she is not afraid to explore certain androgynous ideals. She has a fairly low singing voice which she uses to great effect in “Dada Girlfriend”, a love song to a woman. She follows this song up with “I’ll Let you be my Baby”, a song in which she describes exploiting a man who is “good in bed, enough said”. Though I do suspect that Miss Gordon is attracted to both genders, I think that even if she were not, she might still play around with writing love songs to both men and women. It broadens the perspective of her songwriting and makes it easier for both genders to empathize with her as a songwriter.
Chateau Crone is an unequivocal triumph, it is a great listen from beginning to end. However, I feel as though the leaps that Agent Ribbons has taken since their first record only hint at the limits of their potential. If I could change anything about the album, I would have liked to have seen them expand upon the albums “Grey Gardens” theme and explored it further. I can certainly understand the allure of wanting to put more upbeat songs in order to lighten the mood, though I think that this does cloud the album’s thematic vision to some extent. I believe that Natalie has an album of songs in her that can take the inspired alacrity of Crone‘s most focused moments (“Wallpaper of Skin”, “Grey Gardens”, “I was born to sing Sad Songs” and “Rubik’s Cube”) and expand them into a concept album that could rival “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”. Natalie Gordon has the talent and courage to do it and Naomi Cherie and Lauren Hess are the perfect counter-parts to help her realize her vision.
Agent Ribbons is more than a band, it is a movement and a statement. They prove what I have always believed: feminism is not a way of dressing but a state of mind. In order to become self-actualized, it is necessary, to some extent, that we take the time to figure out who we ideally want to be. After that, it’s simply a matter of trying our damnedest to become one with that ideal. The theory behind the DIY movement is to simply “do it yourself”. Agent Ribbons are “doing it” and by doing it, I feel as if they are subtly inviting us all to do the same.