Review: Agent Ribbons – Chateau Crone (2010)

I’ll be completely honest with you, Mezzic readers. I got into Agent Ribbons for one reason and one reason only: I found their lead singer, Natalie Gordon, ridiculously attractive. From her coy profile to her intimate body language to the fact that she was rocking the exact same shockingly bright cherry red hair that was my pre-college signature, everything about Gordon had my interest piqued. So, I figured, why not download the band’s album? Thus, the romance began.

When I met Agent Ribbons, they were a two piece from San Francisco, marketed as Rasputina-meets-Rilo-Kiley with their debut, On Time Travel and Romance. Truth be told, however, I feel the latter comparison definitely sells the ladies short. Agent Ribbons sparse, spooky, and macabre debut won me over with songs that twisted fairy tales into real life heartaches. “The Boy With The Wooden Lips” plays as a wonderful companion to long-time Amber Valentine favorite Cursive‘s “Driftwood: A Fairytale”, and thus, I was smitten with Gordon and her brunette counterpart, Lauren Hess.

Despite the snug place in my iTunes library that Agent Ribbons had found, I wasn’t aware of the band’s sophomore release, Chateau Crone, until it’s release was suddenly upon me. It was sort of like a surprise party for a birthday I didn’t know I had coming my way.

To my shock, however, my darling Agent Ribbons returned me to slightly different. Sure, Gordon still had her signature short red bangs and Hess played the Meg White to Gordon’s Jack, but not only did Chateau Crone find the ladies calling themselves Austin-ites, it also found them adding new member Naomi Cherie, who brought cello and violin to the mix. As a fan of cello in modern music (Particularly in the aforementioned Cursive),  I had incredibly high hopes for the band’s addition but was surprised to find that the album’s best songs are the ones that recall the simple charm of Agent Ribbons’ debut.

The album starts out with a signature Gordon modern/vintage guitar riff that makes you wonder why that Best Coast gal is getting all the attention for bringing back “vintage sound”. “I’m Alright” finds Gordon just as demanding and candid as ever and “Grey Gardens” (as well as the album title itself) heavily hints at the influence the band has taken from the 1975 documentary and the infamous Little Edie.  In fact, Chateau Crone finds Gordon’s songwriting maturing wonderfully with the band churning out some of the best tunes of their still-fledgling career.

Tracks like “I Was Born To Sing Sad Songs” and “Oh, La La!” find Gordon confessing a dull sadness without ever losing her alluring charm. The tracks have ear-worm-worthy guitar melodies and part of what makes them such stand outs is the fact that Gordon’s vulnerability is juxtaposed by the overt sexuality of “I’ll Let You Be My Baby” (A song which has the fire haired chanteuse telling her suitor that she’s only with him because he’s “good in bed, enough said.”) and “Your Hands, My Hands”, which is a Liz Phair-esque self-pleasure anthem. It’s a testimony to Agent Ribbons’ endearing nature that these songs never become raunchy but always remain playful, tongue-in-cheek. It’s hard to listen to Agent Ribbons’ more forthwright and seductive tracks without imagining Gordon singing them a rebellious little smirk on her face.

The subject matter of Chateau Crone deals entirely with coping with unrequited love, sexual frustration, and nursing a broken heart but the fact that Gordon’s emotions jump so from track to track makes me feel as if Chateau Crone has a severe unrealized potential here. Ordered differently, the album could chronicle the relationship one can only assume Gordon wrote the album about from infatuation to love to loneliness. However, the album, while musically cohesive the way it is, feels out of order.

When cellist-slash-violinist Cherie has the chance to shine through the most, particularly on album closer “Wood Lead Rubber”, it almost feels as if the band is covering another artist’s songs, like kids playing dress up. When Cherie’s mournful violin is prevalent on early tracks “Grey Gardens” and “Dada Girlfriend”, even I, an Agent Ribbons fan, find my mind wandering and myself losing interest. Later in the album, after the pop hooks of “Oh, La La!” perhaps, these songs would have perhaps had a better chance to shine.

Agent Ribbons isn’t creepy as they’re made out in their above video. In fact, when the ladies give into their girl group inspired sensibilities, they can easily charm even the hardest of hearts. When Gordon sings of her long distance love on “Oh La La!”, it’s not hard to imagine Gordon starring in a 1940’s musical, dreamily gazing at the sky whilst thinking about the bad boy from across the country that she’s found she’s found herself attracted to, even though it’s probably against her best interests. And when she laments the loss of her love on “Rubik’s Cube” (The track that really ought to close the album), anyone who’s given a lover one too many second chances can commiserate as Gordon claims “I used to be so smart, now I make it look so hard.”

For the most part, Chateau Crone finds us spending time with the same girls who sang about running away to join the circus on On Time Travel and Romance but the fact of the matter is that Agent Ribbons found their niche long ago and that niche is noir simplicity. It’s commendable that the band grew, added a new Ribbon to the mix, and that the trio tried something new but Gordon and company shine the most in their guilelessness and I’d love to see them return to the simpler days of yore.

For another take on Agent Ribbon’s debut check out what Mylynda Nellermoe had to say about the ladies on Radio Free Chicago. And while you’re at it, see what magic the ladies worked in the Daytrotter Studios when they stopped by the Rock Island studios to record a recent session.

Agent Ribbons
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Rating: 7.0/10

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