November 14, 2015 by Dave Hoenack
Celebrating their silver anniversary, Rank Strangers have released not one, not two, but three albums this year. The third of these, The Box, is the subject of a release show/25th anniversary party tonight at 7th Street Entry. While producing a vinyl tryptic isn’t an unprecedented undertaking (the endearing and inventive folk duo Sudden Lovelys released three LPs in 2012, which we featured here), it is undeniably an impressive accomplishment. Few bands last twenty-five years, and fewer still hit their stride entering that second quarter century. Rank Strangers might have been a darling during those years when Minneapolis might have been Seattle, but that was a long time ago and today the band is better today for its unencumbered independence. The Star Tribune‘s reliable Chris Reimenschneider, who Thursday featured The Box by pointing out the band didn’t make one of the best local rock records of the year. “They released three of them,” he wrote on Thursday.
We’ve already featured the first two records (Lady President here and Ringtones here) and we’ve spent nearly a year speculating on how the trilogy would be resolved, and whether its recurring themes — royalty, power, revolution, the end of the world — would be connected. If there really had been “a Rosetta stone or map key” as we speculated when Ringtones was released, we’re too slow-witted to find it. We called Mike Wisti’s typed lyric sheets “maddeningly dense” in that post, and we’ve pored over them as we have played these albums over and over. Once again the lyric sheet reads like Theodore Kaczynski’s manifesto if it had been edited by Tom Robbins, and while we get tangled trying to connect dots which may not be there, we enjoy the albums even more knowing the words (we are famous for making up words when we don’t know the actual lyrics — you should hear our impression of “Lady Marmalade”).
There is nothing on the third album as dramatic as the reworking of “The Last Piranha” which appears as the penultimate track on Ringtones and first set us towards the theory it would all lead to a grand conclusion. Instead, after an hour and a half of anxiety over the end of times and everything leading up to it, Mike Wisti ends the trilogy with an assurance that “paupers and teachers reach out for preachers” and a simple flourish. T.S. Elliot told us this is the way the world would end.
Honestly, we wouldn’t have it any other way. Like its predecessors, The Box is filled with catchy, inventive pop tunes, often in the vein of those late-era new wave records which found aging punkers exploring new directions and running out contracts. “Global Warming” is a brief interlude which approaches a genuinely serious topic without commentary, but provides one of the most enjoyable melodies in the trilogy, and on the other end “Bird Flu Blues” actually embodies a sense of anxious dread.
The straight ahead rockers on The Box, a couple reappearing reworked from the previous albums (“The Lone Piranha” and “Halloween Arrives”), are worlds better than the middle-of-the-road stuff praised as presentably pious in the church of pop mediocrity. “The Empire of Dresses,” with an awesome sounding bass line played by Davin Odegaard, is one of our favorite songs of the year. And “Lone Piranha” here is presented with more energy than on the first album.
Over the past few years Mike Wisti has engineered some uniquely mad records in Albatross Studio, most notably Grant Hart’s epic The Argument, which portrayed Milton’s “Paradise Lost” with aching intimacy at times (put Hart’s “I Will Never See My Home Again” in the context of the 2011 fire in his childhood home, and yes this is a subject which hits close to the heart here at Hymie’s). The Fuck Knights’ labored psych- rock sophomore statement Puke All Over Themselves (feature on our blog here) was recorded in Wisti’s studio at the same time. Its seems like these projects and others have bled into Rank Strangers’ willingness to try new things in this trilogy of albums. The result through three albums has been extremely successful without falling into the pitfalls of Sandinista!, which even for fans like us has overlong moments of indulgence. The three albums by Rank Strangers this year are pleasantly compact and cohesive, and it’s been a real pleasure to finally be able to listen to the three together. We expect all three are albums which will be favorites of ours for a long time.