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Photo by Stephanie HernstadtIf my survival mechanism worked half decently, I'd run like hell from people like Missy Gibson and Mike Flanagan. Any sane person would. Their music is truly dangerous—and not in the contrived way that local news shows blather on about rising crime statistics, either. As Nellie Bly (named after the intrepid turn-of-the-past-century female reporter), this duo's recently released self-titled album is full of songs perfect for the moment when a bittersweet breakup curdles into something nasty. How nasty? With tunes like "Bucket of Blood" and "Bloodletting," it's avenging-angel music for the jilted lover or the wronged artiste.
"I'm a malcontent," says Gibson. "It's a struggle. I know life is good, and there are many wonderful things, but I have so many bustling emotions. I'm waiting to purge at any moment."
And like any binge and purge cycle, Nellie Bly's is based on painful and soothing extremes. It's Gibson's sexy, husky alto playing in front of a backdrop of studio wizardry; it's snappy songwriting craft doused with a Tom Waits weirdness; and it's a bohemian sound homegrown in the kitchen of Flanagan's Long Beach house (he stomped on a coffee table for the right beat for one song and used a peanut jar and a knife sharpener to cut the rhythms for another).
Guitar and bass might be the foundations of Nellie Bly's songs, but they fill out the sound with violins, accordions and even more unique instruments: an antique church pump organ, a cello tuned like a bass, a piano whose strings are weighted down to make never-before-heard notes. Sound too experimental?
"I guess there's something to be said for chaos for chaos' sake, but it doesn't seem to apply to a lot of these songs," says Flanagan. "Some of them are just pop songs."
A mix between the pop and the chaotic is what bought them together in the first place. Gibson, a Silver Lake scenester, moved from Detroit in 1995 to work on a demo deal with Warner Bros. The demo was produced by Michael Been of '80s one-hit wonders the Call; she left with no record deal, but the sessions taught her a more sophisticated vocal technique. Flanagan, meanwhile, had been gigging in experimental rock band Giant Ant Farm. And just as Gibson met Flanagan at an avant gig starring mutual friend Frank Pahl, Giant Ant Farm was parting ways.
At first, Gibson and Flanagan played it as conventionally as they could, forming a rock band called Breech. But even though Breech—whose recently released album, Apron Strings, sounds like KROQ faves Garbage filtered through a Tom Waits prism—takes up most of their time, rock & roll couldn't quite contain their creativity.
So Gibson sings as a man in the gender-bending project Birtha Fist. Flanagan occasionally gigs around Long Beach in experimental outfits Heliotrope and the Lisa Marr Experiment. They regularly cleanse their sonic palates by playing traditional Irish ballads as Paddy's Pig. And then there's Nellie Bly.
Of course, that incessant sonic experimentation has its consequences. They barely make rent with part-time gigs. The Nellie Bly album was financed through credit cards (and financing Breech's album meant giving up 18 months of weekends to peddle Gibson's baked goods—think pistachio breads and pear custard tarts—at concerts by the likes of Radiohead, David Byrne and John Doe). They don't have much use for sleep, since a lot of their downtime is spent working on their indie label RU Records and releasing all of their works on their website. If this artistic roughing it sounds overwhelming, it's something they couldn't control.
"It chose me," Gibson says. "It's a blessing and a curse. I wish I had more stability in my life. But I feel compelled to do it."
Nellie Bly performs at DiPiazza's, 5205 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., Long Beach, (562) 498-2461. Mon., 9 p.m. Free. 21+.