By Rob van Alstyne
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By Emily Weiss
Jenn Gori's awful secret is out in the open. "Please don't mention the Smiffenpoofs," the tall, dark-haired Bleeding Hickeys vocalist pleads over a sea of protest from her three bandmates, all of them shoehorned amidst guitars, amps, and drums in their section of the cozy St. Paul practice space that also serves as home to Superhopper and Malachai Constant. Then she adds, "Unless you really think it's funny."
Certainly, her stint in "the oldest female collegiate a capella group in the nation," as Smith College's answer to Yale's Whiffenpoofs bills itself, is no laughing matter--apart from the name's inherent mirth. Nor is Gori's tenure in the Northampton, Massachusetts school's venerable institution apparent on Lovers and Haters, Unite!, the Hickeys' 11-song, full-length debut. Opening track "Chinese Dragon" finds the singer blurting "S-S-S-Say something/Don't be so coy/Show me no pity/You tricky fucker" in a most un-Seven Sisters-like manner over Christina Schmitt's raw, throaty guitar and a resolutely post-Nuggets beat provided by bassist Sarah Black and drummer Nick Shuminsky.
"We had another singer when we first started," recalls sometimes-City Pages contributor Schmitt, a petite whirlwind with glasses and an elfin air, "but he didn't take the band very seriously." Black, sporting a luxuriant crop of bed-head, adds, "He was more of a performance artist, always jumping around and accidentally unplugging things."
Founding Hickeys Schmitt and Black didn't always approach their mission with its current gravity. The friends first started playing together for their own amusement around the turn of the millennium, improvising on a variety of instruments. Only after Schmitt returned from a yearlong stay in San Francisco did the duo decide to put their noses to the punk-rock grindstone and form a proper band. Shuminsky climbed aboard in 2002, after drummer number one relocated to the Bay Area.
"It's weird," Gori says. "People--usually guys--always seem to corner us right after shows with these 'you're really good--but' arguments. This one guy told me that the timing of my stage dives seemed a bit contrived. But all Nick gets is 'Dude, you're really good. Do you play in any other bands?'" (He does--Superhopper.)
The party poopers are obviously either intimidated or suffering from estrogen envy. Sure, the band's marriage of garage punk, new wave, and '90s squall is unfancy. But much of Lovers and Haters' strength lies in its economy.
Schmitt leads a wankless existence on the album; her solos are brief, thoroughly composed instrumental interludes, a million miles from obligatory displays of licks and chops. Black toys artfully with the conventions of her instrument, gliding up the neck for a shot of melody à la New Order's Peter Hook on "Dragon," cutting orchestrally against the downbeat on "Roadkill," and joining Schmitt in complex, single-note latticework on the album's most '80s-inflected track, "Die Poet Die." The song finds Gori sounding not unlike a de-gothified cross between Siouxsie Sioux and Robert Smith as she intones, "I walk circles around you/Pressing on the pavement/Raising your dissent" over the aforementioned infrastructure and Shuminsky's sparse, syncopated drumming.
Like their brevity, the Hickeys' eclecticism emanates from a consistently collective approach to songwriting. "Everybody brings something to the process," Shuminsky, an intense, dark-haired 25-year-old, notes. "It's a lot more interesting--and a lot more fun--than being part of somebody's solo project." Even Gori's lyrics are subject to the scrutiny of the whole. "I had never written creatively before I joined the band," she offers, "apart from keeping a journal. Basically, I just tell stories, but I tend to be wordy. Everybody else helps me trim the unnecessary stuff away."
Gori had never sung in a rock band before becoming a Hickey, either (unless you count the Smiffenpoofs, who even cover the occasional Velvet Underground tune). Saving herself for adulthood gave her a philosophical--and stylistic--edge over most singers who start as relative whippersnappers. "I could scream all the time if I wanted," she relates, "but that's not me. I don't want to sing like anyone but myself." Black echoes the sentiment: "We're not a very calculated band. We just make the kind of music we want to hear."
The bassist's statement is as healthy as it is honest. Bald-faced careerism (and the ensuing vacuity) helped turn the alt-rock boom of the early '90s into a bust a few years later. While it'll probably never dominate the airwaves again, rock's 21st-century recovery as a creative force is being fueled largely by bands that, like the Bleeding Hickeys, are willing to work their asses off for the music they believe in--whenever their day jobs allow. As Schmitt puts it, "There are something like 400 bands in this town. We're very fortunate to have gotten to this point.