If product is gonna move (and don't kid yourself, babe -- moving product is what the music biz is all about), record clerks have to file said product somewhere, preferably somewhere fairly obvious, where customers can find it. Like so many other brilliant albums, Puerto Muerto's debut, Your Bloated Corpse Has Washed Ashore! (Actiondriver), winds up in rock by default. For this sublime and uncategorizable duo, rock is just another influence, fluttering delicately amid a flock of more exotic traditions -- cabaret, chanson, lieder, sea chanties, old English ballads. But where else to house such a rare bird but in the same section that welcomes Captain Beefheart, Henry Cow, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eddie Cochran and Depeche Mode? It's probably better -- and certainly less time-consuming -- to call them rock and be done with it. Besides, attempts to describe the music of Puerto Muerto typically degenerate into brain-bruising hypotheticals: What if Kurt Weill wrote songs for Shane MacGowan? What if Maria Callas covered David Bowie and Brian Wilson produced? What if Leonard Cohen hooked up with the Bulgarian Women's Choir? What if Edith Piaf sang on an Ennio Morricone soundtrack? What if Lydia Mendoza made a record with Tom Waits? Music writers thrive on such fanciful bullshit, but they can't begin to plumb the mysteries of a band like Puerto Muerto.
With the exception of Andrew Bird, no other contemporary "pop" artists make use of so many far-flung references, in a way that seems neither schizophrenic nor slapdash. Somehow, Tim Kelley and wife Christa Meyer have concocted an organic, thoroughly modern sound from Western civilization's delightful detritus, a sound that's lovely without being cloying, a sound that's experimental and extravagant without seeming pretentious or off-putting. From the first strains of the opening track of Bloated Corpse, you know you're in for a novel aural experience: Against spaghetti-Western guitar-strumming, Kelley and Meyer sing a lachrymose ballad entirely in German. From that point forward, you'll encounter fusty dirges, Pogues-like drinking songs, bel canto, sinister lullabies, postmodern parlor songs and a great deal of stuff so fucked-up that you wouldn't dare slap a label on it. In the universe of Puerto Muerto, young men, betrayed by evil hussies, lose their souls in seaside taverns; pirates brag about their vicious deeds; harlots accost passersby; penitent former libertines are sent packing; dirty Indians make unwanted sexual overtures on the bus; foundlings are consoled. And that's just a single record's scope -- the forthcoming song cycle Elena is even more ambitious, a Freudian psychodrama that deals with molestation and infanticide -- "all things low-down and dirty," in Meyer's words.
Unlike most singers of the indie-rock ilk, Meyer has a voice that's big and magnificent enough to carry the weight of so much melodrama. Trained as an opera singer, Meyer's got the coloratura thing down -- but she also knows when to abandon it for a wild bellow; a demonic screech; a light, ingenuous, plain-Jane lilt. Kelley's reedy baritone is the perfect counterpoint: cracked, vulnerable and exhausted at times; buoyant, flexible and Smokey Robinson-sweet at others. The couple, who write all their songs together, trade off on lead-vocal duties and play almost all the instruments. Like fellow married Chicagoans the Handsome Family, Kelley and Meyer are an almost scarily self-contained unit. Aside from their genius engineer/co-producer, Randy Wilson, and occasional guest musicians (St. Louisan Matt Sharpe, who plays sitar on the instrumental prelude to Elena; Christa's dad, he of the amazing basso profundo on Bloated Corpse's "San Pedro"; Jon Langford, of the Mekons and the Waco Brothers, who will narrate Elena in the role of a Welsh schoolmaster), Puerto Muerto pretty much do it all themselves.
That's exactly the way they like it. "I think it's fun because she's always around," Kelley says, glancing affectionately at his wife. Accompanied by their shepherd mix, Lenya, he and Meyer are spending the summer in St. Louis, apartment-sitting for a friend and working on new material before they head home to Chicago, where they moved a couple of years ago. "We can just start working on something anytime. Everyone comes up with crappy ideas sometimes, and it's helpful to have someone there to tell you it's crappy. It gets really hairy sometimes with a band. There'll be one songwriter but four guys that think they're all equal, and it's not true," Kelley concludes.
"It's kind of an interesting marriage," Meyer notes wryly. "In more ways than one." They crack up. After three years of marriage, they're in the habit of finishing each other's sentences, interjecting and augmenting, correcting and editing. Asked to differentiate their songwriting roles, they waver, equivocate; clearly, Puerto Muerto is greater than the sum of its parts. When Tim tries to say that Christa displays more of a classical influence, that he's "just a basic, traditional guitarist" who cut his teeth on dumb rock, Christa tells him he's selling himself short. When Tim admits that he gets jealous of Christa because she "gets all the attention," Christa snorts derisively and adds, "Because I'm a girl!" If their songwriting process resembles their conversational habits, it's a true collaboration. "I think something interesting comes out of it," Meyer remarks. "It'd be weird if one of us just did one thing."
Whatever their technique, Puerto Muerto make something that's hard to force into any existing subgenre. Although they've made connections with Bloodshot honcho Nan Warshaw and opened for the Waco Brothers and the Mekons, they don't really belong in Chicago's burgeoning insurgent-country scene. "It's been really hard for us to figure out where we belong because we don't really belong in alt-country, and you can kind of get lumped into that pretty quickly," Kelley says, noting that they've probably sold more CDs in St. Louis than any other city. "I think it's punk-rock folk music," he continues. "That's the most concise."
Meyer demurs: "I don't even know if it's just that, though, because there's the whole cabaret influence. It sounds so pretentious, but I love Mahler. Of course, Ray Davies, the Clash -- we have a lot of influences. The Pogues, Bob Dylan -- just traditional music generally. I grew up listening to oompah music, and I think that's had a kind of effect -- like a virus."
Although they can't explain their appeal, they've certainly managed to make some influential contacts in a relatively short time. Besides making fans of Warshaw and Langford (to whom they owe their firstborn, Meyer claims, or at least some bread pudding), Puerto Muerto has landed gigs at prestigious clubs such as NYC's Knitting Factory; garnered nice reviews in No Depression, the Chicago Reader and Time Out New York (not to mention the RFT, which, for the record, gushed first and hardest); and enjoyed airplay on Australia radio stations. For an obscure band on a tiny startup label, Puerto Muerto have generated a disproportionate amount of buzz -- or at least endeared themselves to a few fanatical loudmouths.
Two years ago, for instance, Puerto Muerto decided to bum around Europe, busking in wind tunnels and Métro stations, singing to people in bars. "We played this Irish pub called the Quiet Man," Kelley recalls. "Some guy was there singing children's songs. The owner, who fancied himself a musician, would come down, and he couldn't find the D chord. He'd won a tripe-eating contest -- that was his big claim to fame. The guys at the bar learned to play 'Das Vidania,' which was, like, our signature song then. An old guy started crying. That was our first taste of Europe."
Right now, Puerto Muerto are getting ready to move back to Chicago, where they're busy recording a new CD, tentatively called See You in Hell; putting the final touches on Elena; finishing up a five-song EP by their alter-ego/side-project band, Tokyo Explode!; and writing an opera based on Günther Grass' novel The Tin Drum. "I don't know why no one's done it," Meyer exclaims. "I know this guy who's a contralto, this little teeny guy."
"He looks like Truman Capote," Kelley adds.
"He has this strange womanly voice," Meyer continues. "I think he might have that Gary Coleman disease. We're going to get him to sing."
"We'd really like to get Dr. Dre to produce something for us," Tim says dreamily. "He's the best producer in the world."