The Rakes' Progress

A local band doesn't need debauchery to be rock 'n' roll

Aaron Pruitt is clearly tired. The stubble on his boyish face looks to be more than a day or two old. When he lifts his head to speak, his words are slow to come. He sips his beer even more slowly: It will still be half full after an hour. The cigarette that burns in the ashtray in front of him will rarely meet his lips. This isn't the kind of tired that is born of having too many whiskey-Cokes the night before. It's a more ingrained sort of weariness, one that is deeper, less easily medicated. And it's also the inspiration behind one of the most genuine rock albums released by a Twin Cities band this year.

It's just after noon on a recent Sunday. Pruitt, who is the vocalist and guitarist for the local quartet the Rakes, and two of his bandmates, guitarist Steve Dupuis and bassist Jon Sawyer, have gathered at a half-empty Uptown bar to discuss the release of their first full-length, Pass the Lies (VETO Records). (They'll play a CD-release show Saturday, September 6 at the Turf Club.) They pepper their descriptions of the album and their band with music-critic phrases like guitar-driven and rockin' and down and dirty. And each of those descriptions fits--but there's more to the Rakes than can be summed up by rock 'n' roll cliché.

The obligatory Tommy Lee-style debauchery doesn't interest this crew anymore. The three men at the table are all in their early 30s. Each has been in numerous rock bands over the years, including the Hostages and the still operational Bottlehouse. As the Rakes, who formed two years ago, they're into a more functional rock 'n' roll lifestyle. Sure, they might imbibe a bit at practice and maybe at times get flat-out drunk onstage. But when the night is done, they'll go back to their wives or girlfriends, wake up early the next morning, and go to work like the rest of us.

It's that sense of experience--having survived what so many rock musicians go through in their 20s--that gives the Rakes strength and depth on Pass the Lies. According to Pruitt, who writes most of the band's music, the 12 songs on the album are a melancholy, slightly angry look back at relationships that once self-destructed.

"The title, Pass the Lies, refers to the process of saying, 'Okay, I lied to you. Now you lie to me so we can get past this,'" explains Pruitt, who quickly adds that he has been happily married for several years now. "It can be a pretty dark album at times. There's a line in one of the songs that says 'Love is all about jealousy and revenge.'"

But Pass the Lies is not simply a collection of mopey laments. Sawyer and drummer Brian Mondl drive the songs with an aggressive insistence. The guitars sound wet with loose distortion. It's Pruitt's voice, though, that gives the Rakes their emotional charge. His pitch is high, and he purposefully sounds strained on many songs, suggesting heartbreak and frustration. His subtle drawl--Pruitt is originally from South Carolina--only adds to the impact.

The Rakes are too contemporary to be lumped in with classic rock, and they have too much aggression to be alt-country. According to Pruitt, the group is largely influenced by bands like the Posies, the Replacements, and Cheap Trick. And all of the songs on Pass the Lies pay homage to those influences. The arrangements are loose (as with the Black Crowes) and the production at times a bit brittle. But it all works: In particular, "Eyes Empty" and "If Anybody Knows" burst from your speakers with an urgency that leaves you buzzing as if you just experienced the band live. Pruitt, who holds a degree in music theory and composition from the University of South Carolina, crafts a collection of songs that is both accessible and explorative. Although the album borders on repetitious by its end, it never quite becomes redundant.

The same goes for the Rakes' career. "We're not a hobby band in any way. As soon as it becomes a hobby, we're done," Pruitt says. "Of course, we do have fun. We might end up spitting beer at each other onstage. We're not one of those bands that stares at their shoes. We don't have contempt for the audience. I really hate that. "

Although the Rakes make their live shows fun for their fans, they still cling, albeit loosely, to the darker nature that their name suggests. According to the good people at Webster's, one of the definitions for the word rake is "a loose, disorderly, vicious man; a person addicted to lewdness and other scandalous vices; a debauchee; a roué."

"It fits us perfectly," chuckles Pruitt. But his laughter dies quickly. By the time he turns his attention back to the beer in front of him, his face has slipped back to the long, drawn-out mien that seems to fit best.

 
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