Artist Spotlight: Pretty Girls Make Graves

Pretty Girls Make Graves really seemed like they were on to something good. Part of this is because they explicitly positioned themselves as indie rock saviors of a kind – they were revivalists of a certain post-punk sound and style, yes, but they were also trying to evoke a certain spirit, one of simultaneous unification and rebellion, one which had been sorely missing for years. What separates them from any number of similar would-be crossovers is that they could back up their own hype. With a tough, aggressive (yet tuneful) sound, actual instrumental dexterity, and the ability to craft elegantly-constructed, driving songs with instantly-relatable lyrics, they more than justified their “next big thing” status…. at least until they reshuffled their lineup, changed their approach, alienated their fanbase and broke up without that “big thing” part ever really coming to fruition. But to go back and listen to them is to truly catch a glimpse of, as they titled one of their songs, “Something Bigger, Something Brighter” — a falling star that was probably never meant to burn forever, but to capture a particular moment as vividly and as brilliantly as possible, with passionate, visceral rock music that could move the body, stimulate the mind, and excite the emotions all at once.

Formed out of the ashes of several bands from the late-90s Seattle scene (Murder City Devils being the most prominent), PGMG (name courtesy of Kerouac by way of the Smiths) originally consisted of core members and onetime bandmates Andrea Zollo (vocals) and Derek Fudesco (bass), along with guitarists Jay Clark and Nathan Thelen, with Nick Dewitt on drums and other miscellaneous instruments. A sense of purpose accompanied this project right away, and they put out their 4-song debut e.p. Pretty Girls Make Graves (2001, B+) on Dim Mak Records in short order. The influences are on their sleeves – Dischord, Hüsker Dü, riot grrrl, the twisty, snaking guitar leads of Television and Drive Like Jehu – but even at their most hard-charging, a strong sense of melody shines through. Fudesco’s bass doesn’t just keep rhythm, but often guides the guitars through their more experimental detours by carrying the tune. Zollo’s impassioned vocals turn to full-tilt screaming by the last track, “Head South”, while repetitive chiming guitars reinforce the band’s commitment to adding finesse to even the hardest moments. The songwriting structures haven’t quite hit their stride yet, but this tiny (around 15 minutes, I think) debut succeeds in establishing this band as, above all else, bursting with ideas. The guitar work is superb throughout (dueling lines in the chorus of “Liquid Courage” are prime Fugazi-like stuff, good god), and in Andrea they have a frontwoman who projects pure poise and charisma, while playing things loose and fleet enough to convey just about any emotion convincingly.

What’s weird is that their first full-length Good Health (B), released on Lookout Records in 2002, downplays their melodic side in favor of more punk-friendly fire and ferocity. Pretty Girls Make Graves operate very well in this mode, and their energy is infectious and invigorating. But “rocking as hard as possible” was never the only thing there was to them, and I feel their other albums represent a fuller picture of the kind of band they really were. Unsurprisingly, a lot of fans prefer this album over anything they did afterward, and I can certainly see the appeal of a band that goes straight for the throat and stays there, barely allowing the listener a chance to breathe. Make no mistake: This is strong, solid energetic rock music, melodic1 and spirited and even a little progressive. If you like anything even vaguely punkish, you should definitely hear it. I just can’t help but want a little more polish out of their sound at this point. Lyrically, they present themselves as old-school veterans on a mission to recapture a dormant energy and tap into an exuberant vein of youthful uprising. Which is all fine, I just want a little more substance behind these statements of purpose. I get that they want me to remember when the music meant something – I want more of that something, not just reminders.

The New Romance (A-), released in 2003 on Matador Records, goes a long way towards giving us just that substance. Pretty Girls Make Graves take real risks with their approach on this album, including boosting the production to levels of crispness and clarity they’ve never attempted before, and it pays off with a supple, righteous and strikingly modern indie rock sound. It’s about as transparent an attempt at a breakthrough as you’ll ever hear, but leaning into the band’s poppier and more experimental elements turns out to only accentuate their strengths. Zollo has matured as a vocalist to the point where she can switch from projecting effortless cool on “The Grandmother Wolf” to anxious vulnerability on “Blue Lights”, all the way around to genuine empathy on “This Is Our Emergency”. The band’s instrumentation has grown more diverse, with more keyboards, guitar effects and weird noises in the mix, but they’ve also gotten a handle on the economy of their playing, laying down rock-solid grooves with confidence and fury. THIS is stuff that is actually worthy of the band’s ambitions toward anthemic glory and profound audience connection, in other words.

The band was just hitting its stride here, and mainstream crossover success was not out of the question – they had demonstrated the ability to adapt their scene-friendly sound to a variety of styles, and a willingness to expand the boundaries of not just of their own work, but that of their entire genre. So when original guitarist Nathan Thelen left the band in 2004, they responded to this setback by recruiting keyboardist/vocalist Leona Marrs and forging yet another new direction for themselves on 2006’s Élan Vital (A). By now their attack has slowed somewhat, but the songs are more melodic than ever, and their songwriting builds them up into cresting waves of nimble, colorful sounds, as in the persistent drumrolls-and-cymbal-crashes of the breakdowns to “Pyrite Pedestal” and “The Number”. Even “Parade”, a song explicitly calling for full-scale revolution by the proletariat class, thumps along with dignified reserve, under decidedly soothing keyboards and vocals. The ideas that first sparked this band’s unique trailblaze have been refined to a steadily-pulsating rhythm versatile enough to accommodate a smokey dancefloor vibe on “Domino” or a high seas pirate shanty on “Selling The Wind”, and if the speedy guitar pyrotechnics of Nathan Thelen are missing, their commitment to expanding the boundaries certainly isn’t going anywhere on the final track “Bullet Charm”, where they stretch themselves into vaguely post-rockish territory.

Pretty Girls Make Graves announced their breakup in 2007, when Nick Dewitt decided to leave the band. Maybe they were burnt out, maybe their more adventurous sonic risks hadn’t paid off like they’d wanted to, or maybe they just weren’t meant to last. Whatever the underlying cause for their ultimate dissolution, I can’t help but feel like their lifespan was a little cut short. Their members went on to form bands like The Cave Singers, Jaguar Love, and Moonrats, but nothing that ever captured the same level of buzz they had as a unit. Although Élan Vital was panned by the formerly effusive Pitchfork and their new direction didn’t seem to win them any new fans, they had laid an excellent foundation for themselves, and I truly believe they were perpetually one breakout single away from a genuine crossover. As it was, we’ll have to be content to remember them as they were: an inventive group of dynamic performers, creative minds seeking to change the culture with effervescent, upbeat, and refreshingly direct, almost confrontational music. Would-be revolutionaries maybe, but most definitely foot soldiers of a worthy cause. We needed bands like this, and still do now. Here’s hoping someone answers the call.