A fondness for Victoriana needs delicate handling. Admiration for an era in part defined by the creation of a particular proscriptive femininity can easily imply a rose-tinted romanticising of what was an age of repression, oppression, division and hypocrisy. Thankfully, Rasputina have a sufficiently modern sensibility, and their lynchpin Melora Creager is enough of a genuine history buff for the group to take an informed and analytical approach to the epoch that inspires them rather than merely revelling in the unexamined edginess of creepy girls, corsets and consumption.
This long-awaited new studio release is a return to form after 2007’s patchy Oh Perilous World!. Now established as a ‘cello-rock’ genre in its own right, on the edge of the spidery shadows cast by Siouxsie, Marilyn Manson and, more recently, Smoke Fairies, Rasputina’s music remains defined by the swoop and scrape of sharp, spindly strings. Creager’s vocals remain effectively impressionistic, if sometimes overly wedded to the Bush/Amos/Newsom school of Breathy and Tremulous. A few songs here are touched by more traditional folk, with queasily seesawing slide guitar and an occasional Appalachian twang that recalls Creager’s work with Nirvana.
Thematically, Sister Kinderhook reflects Creager’s interest in the colonial settling and taming of a restless land, as well as attendant historical oddities like the 1844 Anti-Rent Wars explored in ‘Calico Indians’ and the discovery of giant bones in Ohio. The latter tale, ‘Holocaust Of Giants’, is shrilly piped in a vocal trill conveying childlike fervour and jubilation, the song managing to suggest a look both backwards to the Victorian dinosaur craze and forward to ironic parallels between yesterday’s doomed global giants and the belligerence and hubris of today’s. ‘The 2 Miss Leavens’ explicitly compares Victorian sentiment with modern methods of remembrance, while ‘Utopian Society’ is a tragicomic-opera in miniature and ‘The Snow-Hen of Austerlitz’ is a tale that could have escaped from Angela Carter’s clutch of twisted fairystories The Bloody Chamber.
The album is also full of varying types of captivity. Creager weaves tales of girls imprisoned by domestic or social tyranny or the imperatives of industrial capitalism – the twin support-struts of Victoriana – in attics, factories, graves or “marble dressing gowns”. In the eponymous factory of ‘Kinderhook Hoopskirt Works’, Creager reimagines its workers toiling in “privileged captivity” to produce the sartorial emblems of their age, while strings are plucked like plied needles and, in the spaces between, birdsong suggests an imitation of the twittering of caged factory girls. The elegiac closing track ‘This, My Porcelain Life’ is a cool hand laid against a fevered forehead, swelling spirals of emotional cello held in vocal check by an outwardly composed narrator aware of the implausibility of her wish for independent happiness.
Emily Dickinson, another of Creager’s recurring interests, could be the inspiration for many of Sister Kinderhook’s protagonists. This perhaps accounts for the preponderance of lines recalling her ‘Hope is the thing with feathers’: feathers abound here and – despite the dire straits ascribed to the inner lives of characters more often portrayed as porcelain figurines or painted miniatures – so does hope.