Since 2006, Agent Ribbons has been trekking throughout America’s pinpoints and Europe with a sound channeling the romance of past eras through a modern montage, uniquely their own. On October 12th, their sophomore full length, Chateau Crone will be released by Bay area label, Antenna Farm Records and later on vinyl via the band’s Spanish record label, Acuarela Discos. As a long time fan of Agent Ribbons I was ecstatic to receive an advance press copy for review. Since July, the record has been on heavy rotation and quickly became one of my favorite albums of the year – if not all time!
Returning Agent Ribbons fans will immediately notice the lush, crisp and clean production traits of Chateau Crone, a step up from the stark minimalism of their debut, Upon Time Travel And Romance. The polished sound can also be attributed to Agent Ribbon’s growing talent in arrangement, as the record marks a variety of exciting layers and explores a myriad of genres. From the jangly lifestyle of gypsies to rustic barrooms and misfortunes of love gone astray, Chateau Crone is elegantly tied together with the band’s astounding compositions completed with a keen sense of melody and musical innovation.
In a past interview, Natalie Ribbons stated that while she would have enjoyed flashing back to influential pockets of time such as the Victorian era or the innovative artistic revolutions of the 70’s, she wouldn’t trade the opportunity to create music in any other time than the one she is thriving in right now. Music is her time machine to the past, offering possibilities and access to different stylistic traditions to mold together in a postmodern world. Such a craft of sonic collage making has been her lifestyle for the past half decade; a talent she has continued to develop sans stagnation and taken to the road time and time again. Unlike Lauren, who has played in other bands prior to Agent Ribbons, the band is Natalie’s debut into the indie music world. However, she masks her musical debutante status seamlessly with a powerful confidence exuded through highly emotive vocal tremors and frisky guitar playing.
Agent Ribbons live the vagabond lifestyle. They are in it for keeps and most of the time call the open road their home, touring for many months out of the year, rain, sleet or shine. Most recently, they have returned to their new homestead of Austin, TX after a month long national tour with Girl In A Coma. The future was looking bright with stellar audience responses and even a cordial visit to the NYC offices of their dream magazine, Bust, to shoot photographs for a future article. However, the tides quickly turned when violinist, Naomi, unexpectedly left the tour to attend to personal matters. With only a matter of weeks until the official release of Chateau Crone, her departure has left the rest of the band scrambling to find a replacement for their upcoming European tour. Although, despite the chaos and drama, Agent Ribbons has a knack for keeping their chins up and pressing forward. As the famous saying goes, “The show must go on”, and if all else fails, they will continue on as a duo, restoring the powerful original dynamic which had won the hearts of their fans since the beginning.
photo by Ryan Mihalyi
Just like the bearded lady or death defying antics of acrobats, who wowed and awed audiences in traveling shows, the material on Chateau Crone is a show stopper. The album showcases a new-found maturity since Upon Time Travel and Romance, with skilled musicianship and songwriting technique, all whilst maintaining a simplistic charm. Opening track, “I’m Alright” is an anthem of independence and new beginning, starting off with a pouncing surf guitar leading into a catchy refrain demanding nothing but your love and admiration. It is a powerful opener, full of life and possibility.
However, the highs quickly dim to a brooding low, with the gloomy “Grey Gardens”. The haunting song begins with a dissonant minor arpeggio before transforming into an airy waltz laden with emotion and somber strings. It’s eerie 60’s folk quality sounds like Simon and Garfunkel tangled in a rosemary bush outside of the famous Grey Gardens estate itself. In fact, the subject matter is based on Natalie Ribbons’ heavy infatuation with the 70’s documentary which details the demise of Edie Beale. Unlike Natalie, who has relentlessly pursued her creative endeavors, Beale had isolated herself from accomplishing her dreams. She became a recluse and prisoner to her mother’s demanding needs, ultimately, holding herself captive in an overgrown and decrepit mansion amid the surroundings of the wealthy Hamptons neighborhood. Still, the singer has a borderline obsession with the Beale story and has even taken to dressing like the infamous Little Edie, wearing cheap knee highs and adorning a collection of head scarves. Just like the story it follows, the song is beautiful in its disgrace and features lovely harmonies between Natalie and Lauren Ribbons, waltzing over each other throughout its softly glowing chorus.
Since their formation, Agent Ribbons has developed a skill in composing captivating arrangements while remaining faithful to the simplicity that has won over their fans. Part of this is made possible by the now former Ribbon, Naomi Cherie. While her time in the band was limited, the classically trained violinist added an orchestral quality, elevating the album’s overall complexity whilst pulling the heart strings of the listener. Such an example is found on the warm string montage halfway through “Born To Sing Sad Songs” and her gypsy fiddle parts sirening off throughout “I’ll Let You Be My Baby”.
Speaking of which, “I’ll Let You Be My Baby” has become one of my favorites off of the album. Stomping in right after the spacious and surrealist vamp of “Dada Girlfriend”, the song revives the band’s danceable and tongue in cheek hotness. Agent Ribbons has always placed an emphasis on the dramatic presentation of their songs and “I’ll Let You Be My Baby” seems like it could stand as a provoking scene in a cabaret or the relic of the long lost vaudeville era. Musically, it is a sexy Eastern European folk song that may as well been written in the smoke filled brothels of old time Paris, in a haze of baroque chanting and the foot stomping percussive whirl of bottle tapping into drunken melodrama.
Yet the joy and carefree nature is about to cease when a time clock is struck and wound back to the darker corners of Agent Ribbon’s material in the album’s centerpiece, “Wallpaper of Skin”. The dramatic yet driven song is one of the band’s most original compositions on the record. Amid the rocking chaos, drummer Lauren Ribbons keeps the beat while adding a soft harmony for Natalie’s freight train vocals to fall back on. Naomi shines just as bright with heavily accented swipes of her violin throughout the epic piece.
The momentum is kept up with “Your Hands, My Hands”, a jagged punk addition to Chateau Crone and the band’s entry fee into the feminist manifesto, blatantly glorifying the formerly taboo subject of female masturbation. Other standouts include “Oh La La” which begins with a retro feel caused by the vintage effect on Natalie Ribbon’s voice, recalling singers from the 40’s, as she croons about romance torn miles apart. The chorus seems to come out of nowhere and can be slightly shocking upon first listen. On it, the band takes a pinch of doo-wop into its sonic repertoire, nostalgic of the call and response backing vocals during the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale”. The album takes a breather with “Rubiks Cube”, a thoughtful ballad contemplating the emotional complexities using the popular colored square as a metaphor; like broken love it is impossible to reassemble.
It’s no surprise that the band’s infamous “Wood, Lead, Rubber” slinks in to conclude the album. The track sneaks in with Lauren Hess’ innovative clicking on the rims of her drum as Natalie Ribbons hollers out her lyrics with her signature direct sassy attitude. During the past few years, Agent Ribbons has made it a habit to close their fiery set with this propulsive tune complete with dramatic choreographed guitar rock outs. Naomi Cherie’s maniacal violin parts flair up the instrumental breakdowns throughout the song, competing with a ghastly theremin, while Lauren Hess keeps the chaos grounded with the steady beats on her toms.
Chateau Crone is a grand addition to anyone’s record collection and is sure to continue to propel Agent Ribbons into the consciousness of many. There is an unspoken pressure for bands to exceed their successes with each new release. Luckily, these ladies don’t seem to be suffering from such a dilemma and are ballsy enough to take large leaps into a pond full of lily pads, each representing a different sub-genre to hop onto and embellish without fear nor boundary. With Chateau Crone, Agent Ribbons diverse songwriting and delivery signals a band whose talent will continue to grow and expand into the future.