When Mike Wisti sings the hook "I've never ever been to Memphis, no," you can take it either as an admission or as a sign that the Rank Strangers, his criminally underrated band, are stranded in the realm of poetic conceit. The latter is a safe bet, since Wisti loves poetry enough to eulogize Sylvia Plath in a tune named for her birthday, but I'd rather read journalism into "Rayner Park," one of a half-dozen timeless songs on the band's lyrically dense, stylistically loose fourth album, Consumption (Veto).
In all likelihood the singer knows the smell and feel of the hangout in the title, which sounds like a Michigan version of Fountains of Wayne's New Jersey, an industrial suburban stretch "where all the burnouts would park/And play the kind of basketball that would make the city kids laugh." Wisti contrasts this grassy manmade time-sink with the countless postcard destinations he's never visited, cursing his good memory for boredom: "I saw Dwight Yoakam at the Palace in Auburn Hills," he records. "I saw no hills."
Normally, I don't need to believe in a band to go along with some good bull, but offstage, Wisti's stop-start speechifying is so predigested and passionate that I can't help but trust everything he says with a suspension of skepticism one usually reserves for a favorite professor. To explain why the nine-year-old Rank Strangers have pared down from a guitar-heavy four-piece to a moodier and, I think, much more interesting trio, it's not enough for Wisti to say, for instance, that guitarist Jacques Wait had better things to do. "At the turn of the century, music is shrinking, and bands should shrink with it," he declares. And after a recent live set at the Entry, he speculates aloud that it takes less time for people to decide whether they like a trio than a quartet--economy of opinion being his forte. He doesn't even seem to care whether the verdict is thumbs up.
Hailing from East Lansing, like the other (since departed) original three members of his band, Wisti is one of those figures in what's left of the local indie-rock bar scene who seems like he's got a reason for being wherever he is. That goes for when he's planted in a chair in his somewhat renowned (and cheap) basement recording studio, Albatross. Not that visiting Wisti, bassist Davin Odegaard, and drummer Brien Lilja in the studio's new locale in south Minneapolis is anything less casual than shuffling a CD changer between four teenage punk bands Wisti recently recorded (that and perusing the local zine Give Me That Ass and I'll Slap It).
"I'll go on the record and say I hate knowing that sheetrock shortages even exist," Wisti says when I ask about the remodeling job still under way. But we're soon enough into a discussion about the rise and fall of "alternative," a back-and-forth the band seems to enjoy. "When I started reading that rock was dead in Spin and Rolling Stone," Wisti recalls, "I said, 'Thank God.' Now people who aren't in it for the money can have it."
If anything, the Rank Strangers seem almost too comfortable with this stance, teasing out the subject on Consumption's "Local Band." Whatever minimal myth they retain was provided in a cover story by Brad Zellar in these pages three years ago, which did little for them, save to inspire, presumably, a new track title. Zellar memorably scribbled that Wisti "looked like a guy determined to take every single idea he ever had over Niagara Falls in a barrel," and on the new "Niagara Falls," the lyricist sounds determined to cram them all into one song ("Lazarus leans toward the light after Lucy and Linus and Christ").
But as the group seems to have learned, they're at their best when keeping it simple. Much more than 1997's acclaimed Target, Consumption coasts out its groove, cutting sharply through the Midwest rock pantheon, and without Wait's molten distortion reminding you what city you're in, the strumming here scrapes the bottom of the tracks like a pair of oversized bell-bottoms. Wisti's quaver may hit all around the notes, but his phrasing rides the rhythm with the intuition of Chuck Berry, and you'll find yourself mouthing even the most impenetrable haikus.
Perhaps it is Wisti's precarious vibrato that makes me want to believe songs like "I Am in Mourning for My Life." Its concentrated punk-funk burst shows both how expressive Wisti's son-of-Warren Zevon warble can be and how adeptly drummer Lilja can pull a song out of any drum fill he throws it into. Perhaps getting comfortable with each other has pushed the Rank Strangers to get edgier. Before the band launches into the tune during practice, Wisti agrees: "You're more likely to sound like yourself once you play for a long time. You realize that what makes it your own is you doing it."
The Rank Strangers perform Friday, July 9 at 11:30 p.m. at the Turf Club, 1601 University Ave., St. Paul; (651) 647-0486.
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