Graham Smith stares up at the low ceiling as if he expects it to collapse at any moment. When his mic cuts out, the look on the singer's face is more pronounced, like the exaggerated expression of a silent film star. A silent film star wearing a faded blue Cubs cap. Technical difficulties ensue as Thunder in the Valley swing through each of their bluesy, vaudevillian numbers at the Dinkytowner Café. Then a curse-inducing electrical shock hits Smith from his faulty microphone, and when he returns to his showman vocals, he wails. He croons. He moans. A young couple with a dozen piercings between them attempt a clumsy swing step, uninhibited by the strangers they repeatedly jostle. No one in the audience seems to mind the occasional flying elbow or stepped-on foot. When the band starts playing a waltz not unlike an Irish drinking song, a few more people break from the standard stare-and-nod to sway in time with Smith as he serenades them from the stage, rocking his mic stand back and forth.
Not too long ago, glorifying the first half of the 20th century by swinging your lady over your shoulder was a more common pastime. The obnoxious Swingers-loving blitz that sprang up eight years ago was a banana-yellow-zoot-suited disaster. The prim and poppy Squirrel Nut Zippers all but disappeared. And though Tom Waits has always been great, the kids never really shake a leg to Swordfishtrombones anymore. Lately, not enough bands think about how the carnival organ solo would fit into a Scott Joplin tribute. Which leaves Thunder in the Valley among the few local bands who explore a more sinister brand of fun, some dark thing that lurks in the shadowy alleyways, whistling Kurt Weill.
Escaping the depths of the Dinkytowner, the band returns to a nearby practice space to chain-smoke, filling the room with a cabaretlike haze. Though they wonder if the copy of Crime and Punishment that's lying around will make them look too brainy, and they often make fun of guitarist Nick Ryan's silver-studded denim shirt (which he swears he didn't bedazzle himself), there's nothing too unusual about the five guys perched on amps and drum stools in the cramped rehearsal room. You could mistake them for any punk-indie-hardcore-hip-hop act in town unless you heard them play. Their prohibition era mash-up is recognizable but uncommon among the clubs and dive bars around town. Maybe that's why they're catching the ears of some people who don't frequent such hipster joints, including a certain fella named R.T.
"We played a Fringe Festival show at the Hey City! Theater, and after we were done, one of the girls working the door came up to me," explains Smith. "Apparently, the mayor was seeing a show in the theater upstairs but he stopped in and watched a few of our songs. He went to this girl and said, 'I want you to tell this band that I really enjoyed them but I had to go upstairs and watch a show. Make sure you tell them I really enjoyed their music.'"
"I keep thinking of it as if he were a robber baron," adds keyboardist Jake Luck. "The next day the front page of the newspaper should have said, 'Mayor on Thunder in the Valley: I Enjoyed Them.'"
Luck delivers the headline in a voice the group calls "'20s Guy," a persona Ryan also uses onstage to tell jokes between songs. Twenties Guy is the sort of swift talker who might chuck his dame under the chin and taunt the coppers with the good old-fashioned catchphrase, "You'll never take me alive!" He's a fitting mascot for the band's nostalgic sound, which is a new direction for a group whose members spring from harder acts like While They Slept and Season of Fire.
"Graham and I come from a punk and hardcore background," says drummer Bill Wroblewski. "Jake comes from--I don't know what you call that."
"Musical theater," Ryan suggests, laughing.
"[Bassist] Adam [Wells] is the metal kid, Nick's the classic-rock kid," says Wroblewski.
Although the band started out playing dishpans, accordions, and glockenspiel, they eventually settled on a more traditional sound. Luck introduced them to old-timey Americana, including ragtime and klezmer, and these were the influences that stuck. Their self-titled EP's first track, "Brothel," slinks in with the tom-toms of a burlesque-show house band--what we in the uncouth modern age might call "stripper drums." "Hey Baby It Ain't My Funeral" finds Smith at his best friend's wake, hitting on local punk goddess and guest vocalist Arzu Gokcen, the all-too-willing widow. The band's self-titled track is an apocalyptic waltz that roars with more fury than you'd expect a waltz to muster. The album is capped by "Angel," a lazily sweet song bemoaning the church bells that tell a guy it's time to bid his darling goodnight. Toward the end of the track, the entire group breaks out into an a capella declaration, "It's just the sandman singin'," delivering the line with bravado that could warrant an Al Jolson "Oh mammy!" genuflection.
The EP is the first release on Kissing Cousins Records, a label Wroblewski claims was started by "a great aunt of Graham's who lives with 200 cats." "She comes from old Pillsbury money and she wanted to invest in the local music scene," he says. "She was there when the Turf Club opened in the '40s. She lost track [of local music] over the decades but now she's coming back to it."
"What's her name?" asks Smith. "It starts with an M."
"Matilda. It's your aunt, dude!" scolds Wroblewski. "She's at all of our shows. Except for tonight."
"She's in the hospital having fluid drained...from her elbow," says Ryan.
Though the story sounds slightly dubious, the idea of an octogenarian enjoying the band's live performances isn't so unbelievable. Thunder in the Valley make an effort to put on a show that includes such nostalgia-fuelled antics as '20s Guy's piano-accompanied singing-telegram joke, the occasional beat poem about getting mugged, or a cover of the Gremlins theme song. Getting the cynical youth on board may be a more daunting task.
"You get worried that it's going to come off as kitschy or a novelty," says Smith.
"There's a thin line between moronic and stupid," Ryan says.
Everyone shakes their heads as they recall the corny ideas they've come up with in rehearsal, a few of which have somehow made it onto the stage.
"You can never tell what people will think when you're playing," says Smith. "I'm just always surprised that people seem to have fun."
"People actually dance," says Ryan.
"Like couples waltzing," says Smith.
As the band talks, they pass a Coke can between them, tapping their ashes into it. One can't help but think that a glass bottle would be more appropriate. And they should be smoking Lucky Strikes. And chewing Black Jack gum. But despite their affinity for antique music, Thunder in the Valley aren't a concept band.
"I want to do stuff that's sentimental and somewhat rooted in real life," says Smith. "Not sappy, not contrived. I'm just as tired as everyone else of guys crying about girls."
"I want to make a record that makes people cry at three in the morning, [when they're] really drunk with their best friend," says Ryan.
"That's what you do with good records," says Smith. "It's legitimate emotion."
With the image of Thunder in the Valley's saucer-eyed lead singer burned into their skulls, it's fair to say tonight's audience felt that emotion, too--something like watching a circus train careen off the tracks in the middle of small-town America. It's hard to say whether Smith is the maniacal conductor or a frightened spectator in that image. But either way, when the calliope starts playing "Mack the Knife," it's time to call the kids inside.
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