Out on a Limb

Before the Owls could take on the pop world, they had to face stage fright, shyness, and each other

Yet as May's onstage patter suggests, the Owls can seem painfully shy. Tighe, boyish yet graying after nearly two decades in the Hang Ups, takes care not to overshadow his bandmates. Yet they disappear into the music anyway, May closing her eyes as she sings, Jerry smiling to himself, and thin LaBonne barely moving, the drama of her performance residing entirely in her wide, bright eyes.

There is, especially in LaBonne, an aspect of the mouse that roared. When she sings "Apocalypse," off the new album—in response to the Radio8Ball question "What is the best way to be politically active?"—her expression is dreamlike horror.

"There is no back door, just fall through the trap door, it's a beautiful trap door," she sings, sounding like Laetitia Sadier's meld of Moe Tucker and Nico, but at a higher, more brittle pitch.

The song, she explains afterward, to laughter from the audience, was inspired by an odd news item about a fish who told a fisherman that the end was nigh. Yet the reckoning of the lyric could as easily be about the act of performing: There's no back door onstage. You can only plunge in.

Ruiz later tells me that LaBonne never once sang while in the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group. It wasn't until years after the band's run that she played him one of her own songs.

"Hearing that voice really surprised me," he says offstage. "I don't know exactly where it comes from. I'm afraid it's going to make her famous."

 

THE STORY OF the Owls isn't exactly about people wanting to be famous. When the band debuted as a four-piece at a basement party in south Minneapolis six years ago, few among even that small crowd knew that the event represented something like a personal breakthrough for LaBonne, who had spent the day not talking to anyone—"shutting down," she says, "in order to cope with the reality of knowing I'd be onstage in front of an audience later."

LaBonne dated Tighe for seven years before she even sang him her songs. And they had known each other for longer than that, meeting at a south Minneapolis party in 1990.

"I don't know when you wrote them," says Tighe now, addressing LaBonne, "but all of a sudden you had these songs that I'd never heard before. You recorded two on your own, on four-track, and I was like, 'Wow.'"

Tighe and LaBonne, who are married now, rarely avert their mutual gaze as they sit for an interview in their kitchen, surrounded by paintings by Tighe's fellow Hang Ups Steve Ittner and Jeff Kearns. The couple lives in the guest house of a Minneapolis mansion where Tighe works as caretaker, and the window looks out on Lake Calhoun.

LaBonne, a Minneapolis native, says she started singing when she was 16, and remembers crooning "All I Have to Do Is Dream" by the Everly Brothers with her older sister Charlotte, who is now married to guitarist Mike Crabtree of the Carpetbaggers. Allison was already a fan of the Hang Ups when she met Tighe, and she says she found his talent intimidating.

By the early '90s, the Hang Ups had become a repository of hopes and dreams far beyond themselves. Formed in the summer of 1988 out of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design by Tighe, Kearns, and Ittner, the band made unabashedly pretty pop, with only swaths of dissonant guitar by fourth member and ax-genius-about-town John Crozier betraying punk roots.

"The whole Minneapolis thing in '89 or '90 was long hair, flannel, and Marshal amps," says Polara guitarist Ed Ackerson. "Then you have the Hang Ups with stuff that sounds like the Byrds, very '60s-influenced and harmony-based, with a lot of lyrical sentiment that's trying to be naive and sweet, as opposed to badass."

The five Hang Ups CDs, released between 1993 and 2003, are as lush as the Norway Maple-lined streets near downtown where the music was born—Stevens, Garfield, Harriet, Bryant, and Pleasant. To many from that time and place, the Hang Ups embodied the idea that the good life might be had amid part-time jobs, roommates, political protest, and do-it-yourself music. Yet caring about the band meant getting used to the idea that your secret would never get out. As the alt-rock boom passed, the group signed to one, then another label that folded, eventually running to a standstill on Pete Yorn's Trampoline. With four of their five discs out of print, the Hang Ups are on break, as members go forward in other bands: Elk, Deep Pool, and the Owls.

Part of the problem might be that this crowd was never particularly outgoing or ambitious to begin with. The quiet Crozier left the Hang Ups partly to avoid performing, and his guest work on the Owls' Daughters and Suns marks his first CD appearance in six years. Ittner, the Owls' original drummer, left both bands to pursue visual art, though his song "Black Hands of Time" also appears on the new album. Tighe might be the most patient man in local music (one of the kids he's taken care of as babysitter for 18 years remembers him getting mad only once). And Tighe as arranger or collaborator has helped coax the shyest of local musicians into their zone, however private.

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