- Sue Kwon
What could be more precious than a band whose songs are laden with references to Sylvia Plath, Klaus Kinski, Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf; whose first video was directed by underground film auteur Richard Kern; whose debut album was released on the same label as Arcade Fire and The Smiths; and whose lead singer is an art-school graduate who plays, as her primary instrument, the ukulele?
Yet, in spite of all that, The Prettiots are anything but precious, or pretentious, or whatever else the above may imply. What they are, in fact, is smart, talented and, in sometimes unsettling ways, totally hilarious.
There is, for instance, the sweetly sung "Suicide Hotline," which opens with 25-year-old frontwoman Kay Kasperhauser admitting that "On a scale of one to Plath, I'm like a four / My head's not in the oven, but I can't get off the floor."
By the time she reaches the song's chorus — "I'm not fine, but I'll be okay / I probably won't kill myself today" — the Prettiots have established the intentional ambiguity that permeates much of their newly released debut album, Funs Cool. Is it irony with an undercurrent of sincerity, or sincerity with an undercurrent of irony?
"There's actually a lot of sincerity on the whole album," insists songwriter Kasperhauser, the most consistently blond member of the band. "Every song comes from experiences I've had, or feelings I've felt. And if that's not sincerity, I don't know what is."
Of course, that sincerity might not be altogether evident at first.
"The language that I deal with those things in," she acknowledges, "is one of irony. But the two are definitely not mutually exclusive for me. They actually tend to complement each other, in my experience. One helps translate the other."
The Prettiots' cheerfully punkish attitude and understated heart of darkness have, so far, gotten the New York City group more attention in the U.K. than here in the States. So it's only fitting that the band should be signed to renowned British label Rough Trade, who released Funs Cool early last month.
Currently in the midst of a European tour, the band has already scored a lengthy interview in The Guardian, whose critics have fallen for their "lo-fi indie-cool take on '60s girl group pop, with old standbys like handclaps and sweet harmonies to balance out the more modern-world observations in the lyrics."
The Prettiots also score points for directness and simplicity, a quality enhanced by the fact that Kasperhauser writes and performs all her material on acoustic and electric ukuleles.
"It's really nice to write on, especially for more pop stuff, because it's so simple," she says of the four-string instrument. "It doesn't really give you the option to overcomplicate."
The Prettiots' music is also informed by the cultural milieu of New York City.
"Kay lives in lower Manhattan and I'm from downtown Brooklyn," says 20-year-old Prettiots co-founder Lulu Prat, who handles bass and secondary vocal duties, as well as the thrashy guitar bits that occasionally pop up out of nowhere on Funs Cool. The latter are among the last vestiges of the two musicians' pre-Prettiots endeavors.
"I've played in a few D-beat [hardcore] and punk bands, and Kay played a lot of solo experimental noise music," explains Prat. "We met through a mutual friend, who Kay was playing drums with at the time. I think we were both kind of terrified about what the other thought of us, at first.
"But once the dumb social anxieties melted away," she adds with a laugh, "we realized we were both in awe of each other."
Critics have been equally impressed, citing The Ronettes, Moldy Peaches and even Abba as likely touchstones. But, for my money, the band seems most in tune with Modern Lovers leader Jonathan Richman, who unexpectedly shifted from Velvet Underground-influenced songs to a considerably more whimsical acoustic approach.
"I love Jonathan Richman," responds Kasperhauser. "I was a big Modern Lovers fan when I was younger, so it's a very welcome comparison."
Prat agrees. "My ma would play him in the house. We've never gotten that comparison, but I certainly wouldn't be mad if we did."
Although generations apart, both acts clearly share an offbeat innocence. It's just that Richman's is more childlike, while The Prettiots prefer teenage growing pains.
Take, for example, "Boys (I Dated in High School)," which runs through a litany of exes with the rapid-fire candor of Jim Carroll's "People Who Died." For the video, The Prettiots recruited notorious art-punk filmmaker Richard Kern, who alternates band performance footage with vignettes of fashion-magazine boyfriends shot in various states of undress.
"I was hugely into Lydia Lunch, and she starred in a film of his called Fingered," recalls Kasperhauser. "I love his work: It's really unapologetic, but kind of not confrontational, as well. It exists in a really honest space."
Both the songs and video are awash in wry humor, something that can also be found on tracks like "Kiss Me Kinski." The song is essentially an obsessive love-letter to the Fitzcarraldo actor, whose title character convinces a group of Peruvian natives to haul a large boat over a massive mountain. With no special effects to fall back on, the cinematic endeavor was so extreme that it resulted in the deaths of real-life crew members.
"I swear to God I'm not usually this psycho / But you got me acting like Fitzcarraldo," sings Kasperhauser. "If you're by my side, there's nothing I can't achieve / Pull a boat over a mountain with such ease."
When asked about her fondness for depressed artists, the songwriter claims her art-school background is only partly responsible.
"I'm sure art school has left permanent scars on my cultural frame of reference," she says, "but I like to think that my inclinations have always been toward the darker side of things."