It's a classic: Dad makes Mom mad. Mom kills Dad. Mom remarries. Son kills Mom and avenges Dad. Son is haunted. Oh, the Greeks and their tragedies. The Oresteia—a three-part tragedy about the curse on the House of Atreus—finds its tragic hero, Orestes, tortured by a chorus of vengeful spirits for killing his mother. In mythology, the chorus is called the Furies: They're the central metaphor for The Rosebuds' somber new dark-wave excursion into pop music, Night of the Furies.
The icy synth and thin, piercing drums mesh with a series of dark stories about dislocation, isolation and loss inspired by The Rosebuds' Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp's own stormy night. Last September, as tropical storm Ernesto blew across the state, The Rosebuds hunkered down in their small Raleigh house in Oakwood and anxiously tried to entertain each other.
"We were really nervous because we have these four huge pine trees in our yard, and they're dead," Crisp remembers. "We were listening to the wind and trying to play music. I started telling Ivan the story of the Furies, the Roman goddesses, and we just started telling each other stories to the music and that idea."
The idea of the Furies—who essentially punish the unpunished in the Roman variation on the myth—plays out in songs like "My Punishment for Fighting," where Howard plays a weepy protagonist who has lost his true love, or the svelte "Silence by the Lakeside," where Howard sings of a day when "we cannot be saved from ourselves anymore" and of perpetually waiting for the blame to fall. It's not all love, though: Such songs carry a subtle political undertone that Crisp acknowledges, but she says they purposefully chose not to be overly specific or didactic.
Equally provocative is the new album's approach. Night's shifted sound developed out of Howard's decision to finally pick up the bass. He says it's their favorite instrument as a band, but he feels the earlier albums were never bassy enough. On their first two albums, there just wasn't much he could do about it.
"I really didn't know how to play it that well when we started, and I couldn't play guitar and bass," he says. "But this time I got out an old bass that my aunt gave me. When we first wrote all these songs, we really weren't thinking 'The Rosebuds' in particular. We were just thinking, 'What sounds cool at the moment?'"
The first song with the bass, "Night of the Three Furies," eventually became the album closer. Hi-hat accents tinkle like raindrops on the sidewalk, and Howard's beefy bassline drives beneath his crooning—here, echoey and distant over creepy synthesizer fills. Crisp loved its sound, and they decided to build an album around it.
"We thought, 'There's no reason these shouldn't be Rosebuds songs,'" Howard says. "It's the same chord progressions. It's the same vocal melodies. It's just a different drum beat, and maybe a bassline here and there."
It's not like he didn't know what people might think, especially given the band's more straightforward turns at guitar-heavy pop songs and forlorn ballads: "Working my land surveying job in 1998 in Raleigh, the terms New Order or The Cure weren't user-friendly," Howard jokes. "It's the environment. Raleigh's more industrial. When you ride down the street, you don't see Weaver Street Market."
But this is The Rosebuds' third album—the "difficult" third album, they're often called. That's when Hüsker Dü recorded Zen Arcade; The Clash, London Calling; Radiohead, OK Computer. For their third album, bands often go for it, either in terms of indulgence or exploration. Ostensibly, The Rosebuds had clocked enough studio and stage time for validation, so they went for it. Howard laughs at the correlation, but he doesn't deny it.
"It kind of just got to the point where we were like, 'It really doesn't matter what anyone else wants. It's what we want to do,'" says Howard, with a reedy twang that speaks to his Fuquay-Varina childhood. "We've been kind of apprehensive about it in the past. We just haven't been in a position where we could ... spend time and just make a guilty pleasure album."
That's what this is. Crisp says this was the music of her youth, spent in Fayetteville where her family ran a yard ornament store. "I was on my dirt road listening to The Cure thinking, 'Oh, I'm not popular and I'm fat' and what every other 15-year-old girl thinks about herself," Crisp recalls. Now, to her great joy, former Cure keyboardist Roger O'Donnell will contribute to a forthcoming batch of Furies remixes. Dean & Britta and Portastatic will also participate, though Crisp is unsure how they'll be released.
Appropriately, since they were dealing with their most fundamental influence, the couple chose to record at home this time around. Last month, they told an Austin reporter that Night sounds like it does because there was "no one suggesting the word 'no' at every turn."
Still, they're careful to note how much they appreciate Brian Paulson's contributions to their dynamic. He worked on their last two albums and contributed to this one. But Furies certainly rings like a statement of independence. They've outgrown the epithets indie rock sophs might hurl at them.
But don't think they haven't heard them. "There's never blinders on with the Internet," Howard wryly observes. But The Rosebuds have always made different albums, he says. There is no definitive sound. Crisp feels the whole process of recording this album—which drew on for a year as their learning curve progressed—has made them better musicians. It's at least landed them more musicians. In order to carry out the new parts, they've added a bassist, Giorgio Angelini, and a second guitarist, Justin Vernon, the former DeYarmond Edison frontman who engineered the album's final stages, offering production tips and words of encouragement.
"When we had most of the tracks tracked, we were kind of struggling with how to close it out," Howard says. "That's when Justin came on board and kind of just said, 'I think it's great. Don't worry what people are going to think. Just do what you want to do.'"
That wasn't hard for Howard: He felt they'd already released the "most uncool record we could" with Birds Make Good Neighbors, which he describes as their Tom Petty record: "There is a whole 'nother album down there with those reverb-y guitar parts. But I figured, 'Who wants to hear the same record twice?'"
Indeed, things are different from the Raleigh duo that got signed off of one demo humbly mailed to a label called Merge in 2003: The acclaim has been loud for Furies, and they were a darling of this year's South by Southwest. The couple returned last month from playing Russia, where they performed at the premiere of an action film called Paragraph 78 and breakfasted with ex-Stone Roses guitarist Ian Browne ("My Elvis," Crisp says). Yet they keep taking everything in stride and focusing on the next step. Concentrating on each new difficulty (like their unsuccessful attempts to find a European label) as it arises, they say it's barely registered how far they've come in the last five years.
"What's weird is that all this stuff happens, but it seems like it happens to somebody else, because we come home to Raleigh and our little house on our little street," Crisp says. "At my house, nothing is different. I still have to make breakfast and take the dog out."
And weather tropical storms, too.
The Rosebuds' Night of the Furies is available now on Merge Records. They play the Cat's Cradle Saturday, May 19, at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $10-$12. To keep up with the band, see www.myspace.com/therosebuds.