"These guys rock balls!"
This inarticulate yet deeply felt exclamation comes from a friend as I play him RANA's live EP, Subject To Change. That the outburst comes 90 seconds in just testifies to this band's visceral, immediate punch, a feeling that one is in on the ground floor of something real, deep, perfect in its glandular ferocity. It's a sensation I imagine CBGB leather jacket smarties in the '70s felt listening to early performances from Television or the Patti Smith Group (and it's worth noting that RANA has headlined New Year's Eve the past two years at that legendary venue). Amongst a sea of bands talking loud and saying nothing we occasionally, blissfully, find something solid to hold onto. RANA, by their presence, talent, and passion inspire us to grab on and see where the currents take us.
Hailing from what can be argued is the musical center of the universe, New York City, RANA is comprised of Matt Durant (keyboards and vocals, Yale, 23), Andrew Southern (bass and vocals, Sarah Lawrence, 24), Scott Metzger (guitar and vocals, William Patterson-Jazz Program, 26), and Ryan Thornton (drums and vocals, Lafayette, 24). I like that their bio lists not only their ages but what college they graduated from. There's something fresh about this quartet, not yet sullied by the business of making music a career. Not that they have any choice. It's obvious they were put here to sing us songs. So what do they sound like?
RANA by Pavel Antonov
"There's a lot of categorizing that goes on here. A lot of people here are very concerned about being at the show of the 'next big thing' and I hate that," says Metzger. "Most of my favorite bands are not very popular--not because they're not good, but because they are not willing to change who they are in order to fit the mold of what is hip today. A sound guy at a festival we played compared us to Deep Purple. I don't think that's anywhere near accurate, but I thought that was awesome. I can't think of anyone that we sound like. Fairport Convention?"
He's not far off, in spirit at least, citing Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny's old band. They share a wide palette that can rock with sincerity, even abandon, but still makes room for slow ones that the listener can hold close to their breast. And with up to four singers to choose from things can change radically from tune to tune.
RANA by Heidi Hartwig
"Since there are three main songwriters in the group, (Matt, Scott, Andrew) and each of us sing very differently, each song is treated differently," Andrew Southern tells us. "The voice is determined by the lyrics, yes, because if it was determined by anything else it would be commercial appeal, and we're not interested in that."
Matt Durant adds, "We have been compared to so many bands. It happens all the goddamn time, so I usually just smile and say 'Oh yeah? Cool, thank you.' It's nice to hear but I don't really care whom we're being compared to or grouped with. We have always been dedicated to trying out lots of styles in our songs because it's fun and challenges us. There's as much bullshit as good shit in New York City, and we cross paths with plenty of each every day."
"I think our vocals land us somewhere between The Beatles, The Clash, and The Band," says a mildly immodest Durant. "When I listen back to shows, if the vocals stink, the whole thing is ruined. But we work really hard on our vocals, so we nail them more often. A lot of our more recent songs have called for taking on a character, which is fun, to act a bit."
Matt Durant by Ellen Diebolt
Character is the right word for their voices. Matt's singing has the same bitter honey of greats like Todd Rundgren and Bill Champlin with a splash of Johnny Thunders keeping everything from turning soft. Andrew reminds one of a less Brit Glenn Tilbrook (Squeeze). Scott wrenches a kind of calloused rock rightness from his throat and Ryan, in his rare sojourns behind the mic, is a gentle indie balladeer, a secret weapon if they want to worm their way into the hearts of Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Devendra Banhart fans.
"Listening to Matt and Scott every night is a joy," says Andrew. "Matt has a great yell and an amazing vibe on stage. Scott sings straight from his heart, and if it's hurting that night you'll hear it. I just try to keep on par with their talents as best as I can."
"I write songs for Ryan to sing. One of them, 'Part Of Me,' might end up on the next record. Ryan has a great voice and we've recorded a bunch of songs together in the last year. Every once in a while he sings one on stage and either Matt or I take over on drums."
Their live shows can make seamless shift into a Hendrix-like caravan from their paean to TRL guru Carson Daly or mix up Devo with ghetto fabulousness. They're the odd combination of intensely focused energy and the channel-switching restlessness that marks their generation. Within their songs are pop culture billboards, drunken reverie, and biblical dread. They are loads of fun but never really shallow or glib.
"I think there is a perception nowadays that the new rock greats are virtuoso instrumentalists and lyrics and/or singing don't matter as much as long as a guy can rip on his instrument when the big solo section comes along. I disagree. I think that the poetry in a rock song is just as important as the music," states Metzger.
RANA by Steve Chernin
Their first album, Here In The USA, ranks amongst the finest debuts ever, 11 tightly packed killers, bursting at the seams with live possibilities but wholly splendid in their own right, a first salvo that ranks with the Cars and the Faces first albums with the lip-smacking tang of new flavors being coaxed from old ingredients, a pleasant reminder of how rock reinvents itself if handled properly.
"I think Here In The USA is a major accomplishment. I feel this way even more so now that a year and half has past," says Southern. "We really captured the essence of RANA, and I can only hope to do the same again for this record. We have gone to great lengths to find a studio that is comfortable for us and will serve as a home for the time we are there."
That space it turns out is a barn studio in Virginia run by Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker man David Lowery. Drummer Ryan Thornton tells us, "We decided to record the album outside of New York City, our home that we love, but a city fraught with tension. We did Here In The USA up in Harlem, which means the expenses, the parking concerns, and friends coming by all the time to party and check out the scene. For Here In The USA and a lot of other albums that vibe works (i.e. Exile on Main Street) but this time we wanted a bit of an escape. Us four, David Lowery (producer), and John Morand (engineer) were the only ones invited to the party this time. We figured by leaving the city we could kick back a little and focus on making a great stress-free album. Richmond is a great city that was new and isolated enough for us that we didn't feel any outside pressures. Also David is f'ing hilarious and could entertain us for hours. He had me crying with laughter multiple times."
Andrew Southern by Emma Pildes
As a cultural temperature check the debut gets a lot right. That said, what's the view of America that will emerge on their sophomore record?
"Art always marks the times," offers Durant. "If we took the media's spin as our documentation of the present time we would suffocate with all the mystery agenda in the air. There is so much crazy shit happening all the time in this country and the world, some of it so backwards and dark. It's impossible to ignore. Some of our songs ("Philippe Petit," "Blood Shed,") deal directly with current events, while others are more subtlety affected below the surface."