The retro-cool alt-pop unit known collectively as Miss Derringer is rapidly climbing up from the underground to command lots of well-deserved attention lately: lead singer Liz McGrath was voted LA CityBeat's 2008 Artist of the Year, and the band has recently toured with legendary acts like Blondie (whose influence on the band is very apparent) , IAMX, Bad Religion and X's John Doe – pretty prestigious company, I'd say, and an honor they richly deserve.
With tomorrow's release of their third studio album, the band is about to break even bigger than ever, and cats in the know will be ecstatic over the band's new creative confidence and simple but solid production, while the rest of you squares who haven't heard their sound yet are in for a hell of a wake-up call. Read on and learn about this ultra-cool combo, and the delirious madness that lurks beneath Winter Hill...
McGrath, a painter & sculptor already well-known around the LA art scene, conspired in 2004 with fellow artist and guitar ace Morgan Slade (who's also her husband) and Slade's bass-playing buddy Sylvain de Muizon for a series of jam sessions that quickly grew into the concept that would become the band's trademark: a playfully creepy “outlaw” sound that gets a rebel kick from everyone from Johnny Cash to The Clash, with a dash of slinky lounge showmanship for spice and a big dollop of '60s girl-group attitude on top. Pop, punk, country and gothic elements run headlong into one another, resulting in a sound that is darker than you might imagine.
Having already explored macabre visual themes with a cynically perky twist, McGrath brings the same sweet taste of death and doom to the band's songs, because that's just the way she's wired... and she's pretty sure she's not alone: “I think that the 'darker side' is more interesting and people relate to it more,” she says. “I personally resonate with music and art that reminds me of harder times than the celebrations of fun and happy things... it's just how we end up writing Miss Derringer's world.” That world sounds like a pretty dangerous place... but you'll have a helluva good time while you're visiting.
The dark aspects that McGrath and Slade bring to the party come across in the band's whimsically gruesome artwork, and particularly in their flamboyant and bizarre live performances. It's no surprise that the band was initially compared to The Dresden Dolls... but it wasn't long before they emerged from the shadow of those gothic icons to stamp their own sequin-encrusted leather bootprints on the scene, and it's likely they're stepping up their stage game even more this year to meet the bigger, more ambitious sound of their latest magnum opus.
While they don't go as far as to call Winter Hill a concept album, the band does refer to the project as a “period piece,” taking their title from the notorious Boston Irish mob of the same name, who fought a historically bloody turf war in 1960. Guitarist Morgan Slade has said that he came to realize the music which influenced Miss Derringer's sound – bands like the Shangri-Las and the Ronnettes – was “probably coming out of the car stereos while a gangster in the back seat wrapped piano wire around the neck of a gangster in the front seat.” Good point, actually – if I were planning on shivving some punk with an icepick and burying them in a shallow grave, this is the music I'd want on my iPod. Not that I've ever been so inclined... at least not lately.
The decidedly countrified new-wave strains of Winter Hill assure that the story still revolves around the personality of the fictional title character – a gun-toting chick “always on the wrong side of love and the law” who finds herself in the heart of a bloody mob war and pits her own street-smarts – and a bruised, battered heart – against the violent world that seems to be closing in on her.
The urgency of the story is served up immediately in the opening lines of “Click Click (Bang Bang),” a bouncy light rockabilly number that belies its violent lyrics; together with speedy punk follow-up “Bulletproof Heart,” you get the perfect sampling of the band's savvy ability to deliver rough-and-ready retro beats with bubblegum-pop cuteness. They briefly detour from the rough-and-ready mood to call on the '60s girl-group vibe for “Black Tears,” much like the Go-Go's did so effectively – right down to the beach party harmonies – and downshift the same vehicle for waltz-tempo slow dance ditty “Don't Leave Me Now.”
But for the most part, that's the end of the perky phase, as marked by the darkly beautiful “Death By Desire” – a tale of tragically doomed romance. It gets darker still as Slade and McGrath trade off lead vocals for the 12-bar blues of “All the Pretty Things,” a tart and twangy roadhouse beater with an ominous bass line and smoky lead guitar that would feel right at home in a Robert Rodriguez flick; “Tell Me So” is another smoldering low-tempo waltz, but driven by a creepy, otherworldly pulse that makes it less a slow-dance number than an urgently intense dirge.
The grim ballad “Heartbeats & Razorblades” uses warm harmonies and resonant surf-guitar leads to paint a vivid picture of suicide through the eyes of the victim's distraught lover; with a knowing nod to Roy Orbison's “In Dreams,” “Drop Shot Dead” switches tempos from verse to chorus for a schizophrenic love song dedicated to a man with a price on his head. The softly pensive coda “Mausoleum” will put you immediately in the mind of a David Lynch flick, right down to the angelic female harmonies and dreamlike guitar rolls, once again finding a certain beauty and serenity in the world's darkest corners.
It's cool to find that a band formed by a team of respected visual artists has managed to steer clear of artsy-fartsy pretension and aim for quirky, dark fun, busting out chilling tales of doom (in the mortal and romantic sense) which still manage to sparkle with ironically fun hooks and a playfully deviant – but often sweet – delivery. Winter Hill is Miss Derringer's tour-de-force, representing everything that makes this band unique, and brings dancing in the dark to a whole new level. Getcha some now, cats and kittens...