Strange But True

The Rank Strangers have terrific--if bizarre--chemistry, a trunkful of hooks, and a singer/songwriter who says he lives "in an Old Testament world." They may be the best local band you've never heard of.

The first time I saw Mike Wisti he looked like a Flannery O'Connor character--tense, righteous, and wracked by some huge, gnawing energy whose source he would be hard-pressed to name. Trapped on the tiny Uptown Bar stage with his Rank Strangers bandmates he seemed unsure where to look, what exactly to do, where to strike first. His pants were cuffed halfway up his calves. Migrants from Michigan, they'd been in town for barely a few months by then.

Slim Dunlap saw them about the same time. "They were opening for us," says the veteran of countless local bands, "and one of the fellas in my band came downstairs and said, 'That guy up there is like some kind of preacher.' I went up and had a look and, well, Mike's a kind of scary guy on a stage, you know? Sometimes I get this weird feeling that he's possessed. He's got that almost Pentecostal fervor. I remember thinking to myself, man, that looks like a guy who'd be tough to be around."

No kidding. He looked like a guy determined to take every single idea he ever had over Niagara Falls in a barrel, and I'm a sucker for guys like that. For a while there I didn't think I'd see another one. I was driving home one night some years ago, the Rolling Stones in the tape deck, when I had what I consider my first old-guy moment: I found myself feeling suddenly foolish about the absolute pose--the preposterous artifice--that is rock & roll. None of it was much more than "Bye Bye Birdie," it occurred to me, and for a long time I couldn't shake the thought. There followed a couple of years in which I didn't see a single band that felt believable to me.

Then one night Billy Dankert--one of my oldest friends, and at the time the drummer in a band with my brother--dragged me out to see the Rank Strangers. They threw off sparks, and seemed to take palpable joy in agitating each other and the crowd. Wisti was a tremendous rock singer with an obvious psychic investment in his songs, which were well constructed, lyrically dense, and full of hooks. But that's what I made of it after the fact; at the time what got me was the band's utter conviction and almost virtuosic weirdness--the breathless way they threw themselves into the music, the way they fumbled like schoolboys for rock & roll "charisma" between songs.

When I went downstairs to meet Wisti afterward I offered the usual good show. He glowered at me like an old football coach. "Yeah, well, we've still got some things to figure out," he muttered, and promptly turned away. I've spent plenty of time around him since then, and he seems to grow more conflicted and inscrutable all the time. He wants to pull back. He doesn't want to give an inch.

"Sure, I'm ambitious," he says. "I've been waiting my whole life to be bought and sold. Success is a threat that doesn't necessarily bother me. Maybe that's the naiveté of the chronically unsuccessful. Who knows? I do know that I don't ever want to look back and feel like I spent 98 percent of my time networking and schmoozing, so what am I gonna do?"

Don't ask him. A couple of years ago the band was playing a party at the local Crackpot label's rehearsal space when Soul Asylum's Dan Murphy showed up. A few minutes after his arrival the band broke into a perfectly straight, absolutely competent version of "Runaway Train." It wasn't at all clear whether the song was intended as a tribute or a tweak, but I don't think I've ever been in a more uncomfortable room. Murphy left shortly.

Since then the Rank Strangers have been scouted by a couple of major labels themselves; to date nothing has come of it. It's hard to tell whether Wisti is ambivalent about success or simply too absorbed in a running dialogue with himself to give it much thought. The one time I tried to tell him how much I liked the band, and why--I remember saying that I still believed rock & roll could be redemptive--he cut me off. Yeah, yeah, yeah, he said, that old shit. I live in an Old Testament world myself. I'm a hair shirt wearer. It still just comes down to us versus them.

That streak of righteous vengeance was apparent enough in some of the Strangers' early Minneapolis gigs, but mostly the band's early sets consisted largely of jagged, meandering epics that bore witness to Wisti's taste for early Springsteen. Since guitarist Jacques Wait rejoined the band, they have settled into an impressively concise distillation of styles that's unique for its seeming lack of any contemporary influences. Alongside Wisti's penchant for Dylan, Springsteen, and the Carter Family, Wait juxtaposes a whole trunkload of pirated retro riffs and grooves. They sound like they've never forgotten a record that any of them have heard; they sound like a band, too.

"They're indescribably derivative," says Frank Randall of the Sycamores, a band that's recorded in Wisti's home studio. "Their songs are always built around a hook or a groove, and Jacques is a sometime-student, sometime-thief. You'll hear all these odd flares of old songs. More and more these days rock is like a recycling facility, and they have a real savvy for mixing those ingredients in interesting ways."

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