Power Ball

 

The Get Up Kids, with its genre-defining mix of earnest emotion and catchy pop rock, is the local indie scene’s golden boy. The Anniversary, who played against type like Denzel Washington in Training Day on a gritty split EP with Superdrag before earning Rolling Stone‘s affections with its bombastic ’70s-toasting full-length Your Majesty, earns the area’s silver medal. With its complex compositions, the Casket Lottery, to paraphrase its debut disc’s title, chooses bronze. However, the trio’s third album, Survival Is for Cowards, sets a new precious-metal standard. At once more accessible and less friendly than previous efforts, Survival lures listeners with melodies that beckon like curled fingers, then whispers bitter tirades into their ears.

Opening with drummer Nathan Richardson’s levee-breaking percussive rumble, Survival merges ten confident musical statements with ten narrators’ desperate pleas for acknowledgment and reassurance, fitting it all into a cohesive 33-minute package. Slightly longer than Moving Mountains, the band’s sophomore disc, Survival actually feels shorter, mostly because the radical time changes and tempo shifts the group previously worked into its songs could make a nine-song record seem like a thirty-track marathon.

“We wanted to take out all the craziness,” singer and guitarist Nathan Ellis says. “We wanted to write better songs and make a record that flows.” Survival accomplishes these goals, though some fans might be left wanting more tracks. But Ellis, using a Goldilocks-style decision-making process, decided that ten songs was just right. “Choose Bronze had twelve songs, and it was two songs too long,” he says. “And Moving Mountains, at nine, was a song short.” For many progressive-leaning bands, number of tracks isn’t the issue — see Dream Theater‘s recent 42-minute song. But the Casket Lottery’s producer, Ed Rose (Get Up Kids, Coalesce), keeps the band’s would-be epics on a short leash. “He says an album has to be able to fit on one side of a tape,” Ellis explains.

Survival‘s fittest tracks, “Searchlights” and “Leaving Town,” are also its shortest, which doubtlessly helped with the album’s evolution. “Searchlights,” powered by dramatic marching drumbeats and sharp harmonies, is the first Casket Lottery tune with genuine Beatles-esque elements; “Leaving Town,” featuring the Capsules‘ cherubic vocalist Julie Shields, uses a sprinkling of warm guitar riffs to thaw its bleak keyboard-and-drum casing.

However, fans who attend the group’s gig at the Hurricane on Thursday, March 14, or its free show at 3 p.m. at Recycled Sounds on Saturday, March 16, won’t hear either song.

“We’ll definitely do ‘Searchlights’ eventually,” Ellis promises. “But ‘Leaving Town’ just wouldn’t be as good without the keyboards. It’s hard to draw the line in the studio about what you want to be able to reproduce as a three-piece, and we sacrificed that one knowing we won’t be able to do it live.”

The Casket Lottery’s live sets are as carefully arranged as its painstakingly sequenced albums, though the effects are more subtle in concert. Some acts continually alternate between mellow and boisterous, mesmerizing their crowds before giving them a jolt, but Ellis says that’s not an option for his group. “I try to write a set that will flow with my mood and where I am lyrically,” he explains. “I can only get angry once, so I put all the bitter songs in a row.”

Given Survival‘s tone, the Casket Lottery could perform the entire album in one chunk and still satisfy Ellis’ requirements. Not that its lyrics don’t offer hope — the band just places its characters in bleak situations before suggesting an escape route. Have you ever felt so bad when you’re hiding in your room, and you can hardly get out of your bed? Ellis asks, his conversational voice conjuring images of a detached singing counselor. Days your back breaks, and only black is in your heart/Even I’ll be holding on. Ellis’ protagonists greet crippling burdens, family tragedies and constant romantic rejection with a steely, seemingly nonmasochistic determination. Contrary to belief, I’m fine, Ellis assures at the end of the downcast “Getting By.” Let go.

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Such resilience will serve the Casket Lottery well on the road, where, at worst, the group might endure some rough treatment as the opening act for the recently reunited extreme noise-metal juggernaut Coalesce. Both Ellis and bassist Stacy Hilt served time in Coalesce before forming the Casket Lottery, and Ellis notes that his previous group “has always drawn an intelligent crowd, music fans as opposed to tough guys.” He’s not concerned about the bands’ shared gig at the Bottleneck on Thursday, March 21, but he admits to being worried about the reception the Casket Lottery might receive away from home.

Fortunately, the Casket Lottery has trained for such a scenario, having taken gigs with everything from hardcore groups to pop-punk acts during the past three years. “We’re quite eclectic, and that’s always good for shows,” Ellis says. “I love the flexibility live. But on record, it’s a thorn in our side. We scream too much for some people, and we’re too wussy for other people.”

In another double-edged-sword dilemma, the Casket Lottery has achieved enough national recognition that a few stringent scenesters no longer attend its shows. “They don’t respect us because we’ve gotten to a certain point,” Ellis says. “I don’t know why that happens.” At the same time, the Casket Lottery isn’t yet quite big enough to carry an East Coast tour. “We’ve still got some dues to pay out there, I’m afraid,” he says. Ellis hopes to hook up with a big-drawing band, serving as a support act for, say, a Saves the Day-sized emo icon. To this point, the best-known group the Casket Lottery has shared a tour with is Small Brown Bike, a band with a following comparable to its own.

If the Casket Lottery continues to make records like Survival (and there’s definitely more to come; Ellis vows to keep up the group’s album-a-year pace, and a compilation of the prolific outfit’s singles and rare EPs is in the works), the genre’s marquee acts will certainly come calling. For now, Ellis is content to reflect on how far the group has already come from its beginnings — him alone with his acoustic guitar, making four-track recordings. “I just wanted to be in a band and play rock music,” he says. “I never really had an end goal. I just wanted to keep playing music because that’s all I really know how to do or want to do.”

Last but Not Least

Two years ago, Eleni Mandell, alone with her guitar, reduced an initially rowdy Davey’s Uptown crowd to appreciative silence with a devastating set. Last fall, Mandell returned with a three-man band in tow, playing many of the same songs in a newly fleshed-out form that better replicated her ornate albums. On Thursday, March 14, at Davey’s, Mandell supplies both a backing group and a fresh album, Snakebite.

Like her previous efforts (occasionally a bit too much like them — the title track nearly reprises the structure of her early gem “Meant to Be in Love”), Snakebite‘s songs combine theatrical vocals with sultry, noirish backdrops. Mandell shrieks, moans, taunts and tempts, stepping into her characters with a fervor more often seen in method actors than in musicians. But for all of Snakebite‘s dark charms, its finest offering is “I Believe in Spring,” an irresistibly optimistic seasonal anthem. Another singer with a famously expressive voice, Kathleen Hanna, brings her dance/political party Le Tigre to the Bottleneck on Tuesday, March 19. The songs on that outfit’s tepid 2001 Feminist Sweepstakes should be much more fun on stage than on record, thanks to Le Tigre’s clever slide shows and boundless energy. Opening that show is Wynne Greenwood, who multitasks as both charismatic frontwoman Tracy and her backing players, Nikki and Cola (who appear on a video screen). Tracy + the Plastics, as Greenwood’s one-woman trio is known, blends robust new-wave beats with knowing silliness (she beat Tenacious D to the punch with her tribute to “Dio“).

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Sonar, who beams down to the Bottleneck on Thursday, March 14, would figure to be as electronically oriented as the squads Hanna and Greenwood command, given that its liner notes and back story devote substantial space to establishing its members’ alien standing and obsessive devotion to archaic computer systems such as Ataris and Commodores. In fact, the quartet’s funky jams are much more earthy than otherworldly, but on the bright side, Sonar’s members don Mr. Roboto-style masks.

Finally, Big Smith, who plays Saturday, March 16, at the Bottleneck, proves the difference a common name can make. If this group were called Big Johnson, it would inevitably suck beyond belief. Instead, the overalls-clad quintet of cousins from Springfield, Missouri, plays inspired fiddlebilly bluegrass, driven by washboard rhythms, all-in-the-family harmonies and Ozarks pride.

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