Rockers Without a Cause
Singer Georgia Conley seems to have a permanent look of hurt on her face. Fronting her anthemic punk band the Short Fuses, she projects an expression that can suggest sexual anguish or restless disappointment. It's a natural pout, painted in red lipstick and framed by reddish-black Betty Page hair. Scowling during the breaks between her band's countrified post-punk songs, she looks like a woman who knows full well that she ain't gonna get no satisfaction--but won't resign herself to the fact.
Playing the small, dark Terminal Bar on a wet night in April, Conley overwhelms the roomful of chattering hipsters. The bar finally turns off its jukebox two songs into the band's set, and she starts to loosen up. After a few more numbers and a brief spat with a heckler--"This guy's ruining my show," she yells--Conley starts to pace and growl into the mic.
Tall, voluptuous, and poured into a miniskirt and bright red blouse, Conley exudes a genuine sex appeal rooted in a combination of attitude and abandon that's rare in a scene whose diffident musicians typically look like they've been shoved onstage. Her vocals are barely audible through the monitors, so her male bandmates (a bassist, drummer, and two guitarists) fly blind behind her. They work off her stage movements--their guitars slung low in classic punk fashion--as the singer absently tosses her head around, kneels down, runs her fingers through her hair, takes a swig of water, and blows it out at the audience.
The Fuses' show climaxes with their lyrical apogee, "Increase the Grease," a nugget that seems to be about what all Short Fuses songs seem to be about: an imagined life that's sexier, freer, and more rocking than your own. For three minutes, Conley's dissatisfied look evokes a deeper longing than her later offstage complaints about jaded locals and the state of "alternacrap" express. The song spins images of all-night parties where hot chicks and leather-clad dudes "dance all sexy to old 45s," cruise on motorbikes, shoot pool, and "smoke cigarettes until two a.m." Not exactly transgressive stuff, but there's a hint of vintage raunch here--these are the bad kids at the sock hop--and a greaser nostalgia for the fun-seeking '60s garage-rock era that put Minnesota rock on the map in the first place.
It's a fusion of old and new that could easily be mistaken for retro shtick. The band and their fans look like refugees from John Waters's Crybaby, and they're dressed from the Jane Russell catalog. Similarly, the group's stage names and accompanying personas border on kitsch: 30-year-old Conley is Miss Georgia Peach; her 22-year-old mod-looking and rail-thin partner, Travis Ramin (lead guitar), is Smack Ramen; 23-year-old tattooed teddy-boy Justin Staggs (rhythm guitar) is Blaster. You get the idea. And sure, their Ramones guitar roar, their Stax/Volt-meets-Patsy Cline song structures, and Conley's constant, affectionate rock tropes (she actually spells out "G-R-E-A-S-E") are all just as self-conscious as the Stones-Stooges routines of their friends the Odd (for whom Ramen plays drums).
But the Fuses aren't an ironic novelty, and they make self-consciously fun punk rock sound surprisingly novel. Conley's husky voice can belt out assured, note-perfect, and note-bending country-R&B melodies. Her most obvious pop forebears are Debbie Harry and Poison Ivy, but her closest peer in indie rock is Kathleen Hanna, whose seminal, early-'90s riot grrrl band Bikini Kill married '60s girl-group buoyancy with Runaways attitude. Certainly some of the riot grrrl movement's playful sloganeering infects the Short Fuses' formula for rah-rah-wo-wo R&B choruses, not to mention song titles like "Ride Me," "Acceleration Nation," and "She Wants Rock Action."
With eight songs clocking in at under 19 minutes, the band's dramatically titled debut disc, #1, kicks off with "Funtimes," featuring a gaggle of overdubbed Conleys shouting "USA!" for no apparent reason. Though it might seem like a stretch to line up Bikini Kill lyrics like "I can't/I can't/I can't/I can't come" against Conley's insistent demand to "Increase/Increase/Increase the grease," the musical lineage is obvious.
On a sunny evening just a week after the Terminal Bar show, I put the question to Conley squarely: Are the Short Fuses grimy ironists, or are they advocating a greaser revolution? "We don't have a message," Conley says over barbecue in her tiny back yard, behind the St. Paul house she shares with Ramin. "It's just about energy--a release. That's what we like about music, that it makes us feel that way."
The two male guitarists chime in with similar sentiments. "When I go to a show, I don't want to hear some nerd's feelings," says Ramin. Staggs laughs, before citing Poison and the Fuses' friends in the seamy Nashville Pussy as kindred spirits--though they sound nothing like either band.
True, below a moss bed of synth-fuzz by guest Mark Mallman, you'll find the band's statement of purpose hiding in "Supercharged": "You can't beat us, so join us and rock out." But Conley says she's already tired of the word "rock," especially given her love of the blues and old country and western. Still, she maintains that their rawking song-chants are sincere. "It's silly that we do mean that we want rock action," she laughs, "But we do. We do want rock action."
While Conley's own quest for R.A. started in St. Paul, where she attended Central High School, her bandmates (save for drummer Gary Weis, a.k.a. Guy Incognito) are out-of-towners. Bleach-blond bassist Tom Meehan (a.k.a. Mr. Black) is a vet of probably the finest Jewish punk band ever to emerge from Iowa, Total Passover. Ramin and Staggs both hail from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a sleepy lumber and steel town tucked in a valley surrounded by mountains, and home to the Little League World Series.
"Nothing big ever came through town," Ramin remembers. "We were able to have punk concerts and high school bands, but we had to do it ourselves." Ramin booked a Williamsport show by Conley's old band Speedway (with Tom Rosenthal of Magnatone and the Foxfire Coffee Lounge) and offered to sit in on drums when their skin-kicker was unable to travel. Soon, he found himself recruited to join them in the Cities. "The first concert I came to here, I couldn't believe how everyone was just planted," he says. "Where we come from, it didn't matter who it was: People would dance."
Hoping to liven things up, Ramin's new JetStar label will be releasing records by the Odd, power-poppers Candygirl, and like-minded rock hedonists the Dirty Robbers and the Midnight Evils. With this emerging scene around them, the band hopes to inject a few pre-punk notions of fantasy and flash into the DIY culture they were reared on. Conley and company may also be the first band tuneful and fast enough to bridge the underage punk movement in which they got their start in 1996 and the liquored Turf Club hipster ghetto they now inhabit. "Our best shows have been in basements," Conley says. "I'm not into the insider politics of it, but I still consider myself a punk. Down to my bones."
The Short Fuses perform an 8:00 p.m. in-store concert at Cheapo Uptown on Friday, May 14th; (612) 827-8238. They also perform in the 7th Street Entry on Sunday, May 16 with the Eyeliners and the Groovie Ghoulies; (612) 338-8388. JetStar holds a label showcase on Wednesday, May 19 at the Turf Club, featuring the Odd, the Short Fuses, and Candygirl; (651) 647-0486.
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