Author: Matt Schild
02/10/2009 | | | Feature
"I don't have my finger on the pulse of what anybody likes," admits Ladyfinger (ne) front man Chris Machmuller. "There are things that become so wildly popular that I'm absolutely mystified."

Don't roll your eyes, snicker and mutter something about how the singer/guitarist is helplessly out of touch: He's just like everyone else, including you, whether you want to admit it or not. With the music world fractured into so many different scenes, subgenres, subcultures and competing ideals, nobody knows which way is up. The labels don't, or they'd figure out a way to stop bleeding money. The hipsters don't, or else they'd realize that Fucked Up, Animal Collective and The Hold Steady are diametrically opposed to each other, and pick one of those bands to be the Band of the Moment. The bloggers, rock journalists and radio personalities sure as hell don't, or else they'd be leading us out of this confused mess. Maybe there just isn't much of a pulse left upon which anyone can place a finger.

If the music world's nothing more than a ball of confusion, what's a band to do? If you're Omaha, Neb.'s Ladyfinger (ne), the answer is simple: stop trying to take a pulse. Quit trying to fit in. Forget about the world around you and get down to making music you can be proud of in 10 years. In these topsy-turvy days, isn't that the only way to roll?

It turns out that Ladyfinger (ne) -- which also features guitarist Jamie Massey, bassist Ethan Jones and drummer Pat Oakes -- is down with making a return to meat-and-potatoes rock music. The act's sophomore effort, Dusk (review), surfaced last week from Omaha mainstay Saddle Creek Records, and finds the band further refining its mix of classic rock riffery, punk's urgency and despair and that obsessive record-geek streak that's the foundation for much of the indie-rock underground. While the act's been ushered into the same realms of classic-rock revivalism as that of The Hold Steady's Thin Lizzy-and-Springsteen infatuation or Wolfmother's Zeppelin-Sabbath fixation, Dusk doesn't wear its influences so proudly on its sleeve. The hard-rock action makes comparisons to everyone from Motorhead to Sabbath not exactly forced, but, then again, it's never that cut and dried with Ladyfinger (ne).

Bits and pieces of The Minutemen rub up against the supernatural heaviness of classic Stooges. Hooks and melodies skirt in and out of riffs that may seem as if they're stuck on mere guitar worship and groove riffs. Machmuller yelps and moans like a tortured post-hardcore soul. There's a lot more -- a heck of a lot more -- to Ladyfinger (ne) than most first-listen impressions might indicate.

"It's a common thing for a lot of people, they get something brand new and they put it on their player. Within the first minute or two they've made a decision," Machmuller says. "It's hard to get people to invest time into something they may not feel like it's worthwhile to them. I think there are a lot of things that, on repeat listens, you might draw from it more than you would the first time. Again, that's just kind of what you're up against. I'm not so into myself that I'd say 'Look, you have to listen to it because it's going to change your life.' That's not what I'm into."

Nobody really has his or her finger on the pulse of popular music these days, but Ladyfinger (ne) would sure settle for a few of them taking the time to put their finger on the band's pulse.

Historically speaking, Ladyfinger (ne) already knows what it's like to have the world not quite understand what it was putting down. Formed in the early part of the decade by rockers who circulated on the periphery of the Saddle Creek scene -- Jones was even a member of The Faint at one point -- the band kicked around Omaha perfecting is sound under the more straightforward moniker of Ladyfinger. After a long-forgotten band reasserted a claim on the name -- ensuing a terribly boring non-drama between lawyers -- the act tacked the (ne) onto its name to distinguish itself from the other band and pay tribute to its heartland homeland.

Ladyfinger (ne) - Lost in the HeartlandAs band-name issues unfolded behind the scenes, Ladyfinger (ne) caught the ear of the tastemakers in the Saddle Creek office, who released its debut, Heavy Hands (review) in '06. Cue a wave of confusion: Many mainstream rock scribes, somewhat aware of The Faint, Bright Eyes and Cursive, heralded it as a break from "the Saddle Creek sound," which, apparently, was a defender of the indie-rock manifesto in many people's eyes. Despite the label's long-running tradition of diversity (we're talking The Faint, Bright Eyes and Cursive, for Christ's sake), Heavy Hands wasn't the indie cliche so many people erroneously expected from Saddle Creek.

Hold on a minute, though: This was also just about the time The Hold Steady's classic-rock influenced indie rock was storming the world, taking its Boys and Girls in America to the top of critic's charts and reaffirming the classic pantheon in a younger generation of fans. Seems like Ladyfinger (ne) would have easily fit into that category, right? Think again. Where bands were shamelessly plundering the highs of the '60s and '70s for their songs, Heavy Hands, much like Dusk, was never transparent enough in its influences, mixing sounds in ways that didn't push the same nostalgic classic-rock buttons as so many other bands did.

"You know, there seems to be a lot of group that take from their influences rather brazenly, you know what I mean?" Machmuller says. "It's like 'Oh, I know what they're trying to do. They sound like ZZ Top.' You're like 'What else do they sound like? Nothing.' I think people are just doing what they want to do. If it fits that mold, so be it. There are groups that take it and turn it into their own, like High on Fire."

If there wasn't a place for Ladyfinger (ne) in neither the retro-revival world nor the indie-rock rank and file, Dusk certainly doesn't position the band among those willfully abstract and convoluted up-and-comers that are all the rage these days, the Animal Collectives and Deerhoofs. Dusk is about as far away from that part of the musical spectrum as it can be. It's not because Machmuller and company totally shy away from it, though.

"I don't like music to be forced, you know what I mean?" he said. "Sometimes I'm like 'You're not necessarily doing that because it's sonically appealing. You're doing it because 'Well, fuck it. Let's just do it. Let's put these two measures in an odd time signature.' It's just enough to, I don't know, jolt your listener out of any comfortable moment and go a completely different direction. It just sounds forced to me and I don't want our band to sound like that.

Ladyfinger (ne) - Lost in the Heartland"I have plenty of albums and I used to listen to a ton of jazz, freeform and abstract, and will still do that on occasion, depending on my mood," he continues. "A lot of times, it was when I was in school and working on things that were congruent to that. I was learning and I was trying to broaden my horizons. I think those projects are certainly worthwhile and interesting. At some point, I just think 'OK, OK. Maybe we should just make music again, instead of these art projects that you put on when you're fucking ripping a bong.'"

In this mixed-up musical world, how does Ladyfinger (ne) find a place to call its own, anyway? That's not really an issue for the foursome. The band's focused on doing what it does best, namely writing songs, taking a few weeks off the day job to tour and showing the world just what it's made of. These days, that's probably all any act can do these days, anyway.

Ladyfinger (ne) isn't waiting for the music industry to pull it together and take control of the situation, that's for sure. After years and years of building and defending legacies -- the sort of careers that cultivated everyone from David Bowie to Bruce Springsteen -- labels are famously shortsighted, and maybe that shortsightedness is finally catching up with it. After years of learning how to pick something that's easy to hype, develop a plan to hype it and then reap the initial benefits of that quick-turnaround hit, the industry might be falling victim of its own tactics. With few bands left in major-label stables that offer sounds that should sustain the latest MySpace-fueled fad, let alone still be worth hearing in one or two decades, the labels are crumbling under their own poor vision and impatience. Maybe we shouldn't feel too bad for the folks who tried to convince us that Deadeye Dick and Eiffel 65 were worth buying.

"It's funny how now it's just a big sort of factory, a hit factory," Machmuller says. "Bands aren't really cultivated, or maybe they are cultivated, but a little too much. It's just something that will sell right now. Not something that has staying power, not something that has true worth on any scale.

"I don't want to sound like a dick or anything, but, like Duffy? I've only heard that one song, so I'll be honest. I don't know anything about the rest of the shit. I'm like what is it? It has a hook and all that shit, but I have a stack of records in my basement from 40 years ago, which has the same shit and is a hell of a lot better, a lot more soulful.

"We could argue all these points, but we would just end up sounding like aging rockers who are bitter," he laughs. "I never want to sound like that. I have a very broad appreciation of all kinds of music, and I generally don't talk shit about all that stuff, and I certainly don't want to sound like we're the band that's really making it happen. We're just trying to do what we enjoy doing and write songs that we would be proud of."

At the end of the day, isn't writing an album that you'll still be proud of in a decade really the only thing that should matter for a band?


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