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Arts and Culture

Embracing Death with the Casket Girls

"Sleepwalking" is a lullaby to the big, black dark.

Adrian Mack 8 Nov

Adrian Mack contributes a regular music column to The Tyee and frequently sits behind Rich Hope.

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The Casket Girls facing the end.

Though not as conspicuous as, say, the Velvet Underground, one of the most influential musical acts of all time is the Shangri-Las. As Jim Reid recalls in the great Creation Records documentary, Upside Down, the Jesus and Mary Chain spent their misbegotten youth actually trying to find the split between V.U. and the tough-as-nails all-girl group from Queens, New York.

A few years before that, the New York Dolls were directly quoting the Shangri-Las in the intro of "Looking for a Kiss" (and getting even closer to source when they scored producer Shadow Morton for their second album), while more recent tributes have come from the likes of Amy Winehouse, Dum Dum Girls and the Black Lips.

The appeal is obvious. If hormonal adolescent melodrama has a sound, it's Mary Weiss's voice on "Remember (Walkin' in the Sand)." And the reason we remain fascinated by "Leader of the Pack" is because it's so passionately about death. The Shangri-Las rewired the period's anxieties -- a time of uneasy peace with a bomb permanently in the background -- into an amazing piece of sultry-weirdo pop soaked in hormones. It's kind of a miracle.

This week, the Casket Girls of Savannah, Georgia release their debut album, Sleepwalking. As the story goes, Elsa and Phaedra Greene were busking with an autoharp when Ryan Graveface of Black Moth Super Rainbow stumbled on them and decided that he'd found his own "darker and more complex" version of the Shangri-Las.

The title track, a cloud-lullaby of retro-synths, microphonic tube amps, and endearingly flat schoolgirl voices, offers pretty great supporting evidence. Even more telling is its mingling of death with desire. Things are pretty bleak at first, when "there will be no starting over, it'll just be over," but the song whips itself up into a small mass eventually.

By the end, the Greene sisters sound almost religious when they declare, "I'm willing to go before my time." What does it say about this era's anxieties that the Casket Girls are so eager to embrace the "big black dark"?  [Tyee]

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