Mysterious Light

Puppies and bunnies. Photo by Sam Tenney

The Starvations finished about 10 years of their band as they finished out 2005, with "people stacked on people stacked on people" at a series of goodbye shows up and down the West Coast, says former drummer Ian Harrower with a laugh now, pantomiming layers and layers of fans with his hands. And the cloud of smoke they left behind didn't lift until last month, when the same five people brought out a brand-new name (which you might understand if you try and read your palm) and brand-new songs for a brand-new band called Fortune's Flesh, which sort of Rank-and-Files where the Starvations Dils-ed off: songs with spaces for piano and mandolin, orchestral aspirations from Shadow Morton and Joe Meek, twin Kinman Bros. guitars, and Gabriel Hart's signature vocals looping Iggy in the low registers and Richard Hell in the highs. This Friday will be their second-ever show and their first-ever in OC: it's a sound a little familiar but newly alive.

"I was actually really surprised that people were saying after our first show, 'That sounds just like the Starvations,'" says drummer (and former Starvations bassist) Dave Clifford. "As if we were trying to do something really different. I think it's taking smaller baby steps toward new ideas." Instead, the name change—and a lineup left intact except for a rhythm-section switch between Harrower and Clifford—made for a welcome psychic reset after years of the Starvations' storied, if not notoriously torturous, history. At a certain point, you can start to feel the weight of your own discography, and the worst part of being a working band is all the heavy lifting anyway, so pianist Vanessa Gonzalez's quiet idea for a new start—something she came up with on the way home from last year's SXSW but didn't mention for two weeks because it was so potentially contentious—came as perfectly timed relief.

"I think if it'd been two weeks before, I'd have just been like, 'What the fuck?'" says Hart. "But me and Ian looked at each other: 'Huh . . . what an exciting idea.' One thing I was afraid of with the Starvations that I realized in retrospect: you run the risk of becoming a parody of yourself, and just the name change alone made me feel comfortable exploring other things. Maybe the songs not being so personal, not so much about . . . vice and shit like that. I realized that can just be a really tired sort of thing.'"

Fortune's Flesh still has stories, but not always with lyricist Hart as obvious autobiographer—more like reading a book than a diary entry, he says. Or, says Clifford, less meshed into the tell-tale/tall-tale songs about apocalypse Starvations loved so well. "Within three verses, they'd sort of come to a head of something going to happen," he says. "Revenge or . . . an event. And these songs seem more like omniscient observations about life."

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"About all the stuff that stops the gears from running smoothly," says Hart.

It's like Lou Christie in a way, says Clifford: bubblegum tropes like (now bassist) Harrower and guitarist Leon Catfish's harmonies or Vanessa's excited-to-be-everywhere keys, but something dark and creepy, too. Lyrics from "Ambition" ("Honey, your face is burning/like some eclipsed sun/and inside it yearning/is my own bitten tongue . . .") or earth-angel downer "Mutual Fools" ("You've been finished off/by the wrath of a fool . . .") put a burned-out-bulb flicker inside songs that alternately brighten the Starvations' sound toward I.R.S. Records-style '82 wave—such as "Mysterious Light," which is part Steve Wynn, part Human Switchboard—or unravel it into slower, 6/8-time minor-chord mourners such as "My Mermaid" ("My mermaid takes me to depths I never knew were there," sings Gabe beside mandolin and choir-boy backups).

Sort of the truth-draped-in-melodrama technique the Shangri-La's found in "Walkin' in the Sand," which is the arguable source of the "death doo-wop" sound—"After 'Leader of the Pack,' there was a whole trend of teen tragedy," Hart says. "Girls' boyfriends getting in grisly car accidents or motorcycle accidents or fights and stuff, and the public wanted it so bad—their little tragedy fix in a three-minute pop song"—Hart hopes they're chasing. Which is: the momentum and sophistication of the Starvations, but pop's more generous opportunity to sound one way and sing another, and a new band's chance to do anything it wants. Talking about starting over, members catch at new and cute metaphors: Hart says he feels like a lost puppy, and Gonzalez suggests a fluffy bunny, both terms the Starvations never heard in all their years (instead, it was most often "whiskey" and "blues"). And if that's not the new sound, it's at least the new feeling that's going to fuel it. Says Gonzalez: "It's just a different band."


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