Turn on the Black Lights

In the shadow of Joy Division, Signal and Report find more darkness

Chris Hall doesn't look like he's going to kill himself--or anyone else, for that matter. A polite soul with a baby face, he has a faint lisp when he speaks, and seems younger than his 27 years, much like everyone in his rock band, Signal and Report. ("Clean living," they explain.) But when he steps to the microphone, kicking the effects pedal on his guitar, something else rises out of him. He's like a puppy in the spotlight, casting a dragon's shadow.

The spectacle is both classic and comic: Neatly dressed Electric Fetus cashier by day morphs into a spitting, snarling, abusive monster by night. In the band's meat-locker-like practice space in northeast Minneapolis, I hear Hall's gruff, demanding voice echo and realize how many perfectly normal kids Joy Division's Ian Curtis has liberated--and I don't mean by killing himself. The most famous suicide in punk was also the first icon to give sad kids permission to be sad in public--to make sadness a life force as relentless and irresistible as anger or joy.

Signal and Report, who play Wednesday, July 2 at the Turf Club, turn their own bad mood into something propulsive. Christian Herro swoons over his blaring Roland synthesizer, and bassist Noah Miller locks into the bass-drum pulse of Mike Cain--who first discovered the others in this same room two years ago, while taking a break from practicing with another band. After standing outside the door for a few minutes and listening to Signal and Report's haunting drone, Cain walked in and suggested he could do better than their drum machine.

He must have been right: The music pulls you in like a trap door in a basement. But it's songwriting that keeps you there. Over an urgent beat, Hall barks the words to "Control":

"I need control back in my life,
I need control of you
I need control to make things right,
So you get your due..."

What strikes me about the song, from the band's cool debut CD, No New Rome to Burn (Augustus Records), is how it dares to say something straightforward. "I need control back in my life" is about as vague and emo-artful as telling your lover, "Pick up some eggs on your way over." And the metaphor Hall employs next similarly works without laboring: "When you talk, every word that's been said/Seeps deep through the cracks in the wall built around my head."

Only the closing line betrays Hall's weakness for the literary. At first "For the love of God, Montresor!" sounds like "For the love of God, undress her!" until I reread the lyric sheet and reach for Google: Turns out the line is from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado"--the last words of a man who is literally walled in to die. That's a hell of a way to ask for more space in a relationship--and a pretentious one to boot. But as Morrissey fans know, one phrase isn't enough to throw you out of a song. Miller later confesses that he has loved Hall's lyrics for years without always exactly understanding what they mean. And Miller sings some of those words with Hall.

"So what do your girlfriends think of the songs?" I ask the musicians after practice, as all four settle into a booth at the nearby bar Mayslack's for cokes and ice teas (none of the band members drinks).

"There's a loaded question," laughs Miller. "Let's talk about Interpol."

He's joking, of course: The question of how Signal and Report compare themselves to the most popular band currently reviving British post-punk has dogged them from the start, and I barely bring it up before the musicians beat it down like a gopher. They hadn't even heard the "I word" when they entered Sacred Heart studios in Duluth to begin work on No New Rome to Burn. And their lyrics set the band apart from their New York contemporaries: When Hall sings, "My heart sets with the glow of a red twilight," he means his heart is sinking, and he's saying it in a poetic way. When Interpol's Paul Banks sings, "Saturn makes your mind break into pieces," he's being decoratively meaningless.

It should be pointed out that Miller and Hall had been playing ghoulish synthesizer rock for years--ever since they met in college in Iowa City--and had been loving Ian Curtis long before it was considered anything but nerdy. If the times are catching up to Signal and Report, so much the better. But if success does come, here's hoping it doesn't go to their walled-in heads. We need these boys miserable.

 
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