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'The nuance of a bigger scheme': Agent Ribbons

FREE OF CORPORATE SHACKLES, independent music takes on myriad shapes, sizes and forms, but there probably aren’t too many bands with the exact same DNA as Agent Ribbons.

The duo, which makes its Savannah debut at the Sparetime Sept. 28, plays a minimalist concoction of sweet girl–group pop, with the requisite creamy harmonies, and witty, left–of–center lyrics. Dosed with costumes, props and a picaresque theatricality.

All this burlesque dreampop is delivered via guitar (Natalie Gordon) and a drum kit (Lauren Hess).

“I was 21 at the time we started the band and wrote our first album,” says Gordon, the flame–haired frontwoman. “Lauren was just learning how to play drums. I guess I was always as really big fan of pop music, but the way that I used my voice was really inspired by a lot of ‘40s jazz singers that I grew up hearing in the house a lot. So I was actively trying to sing well, rather than not really paying attention to how I was using my voice.”

Agent Ribbons began in the San Francisco area; the twosome relocated to Austin three years ago.

There was never, Gordon stresses, any sort of plan. Au contraire.

“As far as the theatricality goes, the lyrics and stuff, I just always really liked things with cleverness and humor. Like Cole Porter’s songs, or Dorothy Parker’s funny poetry — witty one–liners and stuff like that. I guess it’s a very old school sensibility.

“But I don’t know how much of it was necessarily conscious. Obviously, we chose to do all that stuff. But it wasn’t pre–meditated that much.”

Agent Ribbons is playing Naughty Nautical Night at the Sparetime, a music–and–oddness celebration of Savannah’s Dame Darcy and her new book Handbook For Hot Witches.

There’ll be performances by Anitra Opera Diva, Fiona Horne, Dame Darcy herself and others. The 9 p.m. event also promises “Banjo and Accordion, Sea Shantys, Hot Sailor Boys and Pirates, Dancing Mermaids and Belly Dancers.”

See Agent Ribbons' newest video, "Family Haircut":

What Agent Ribbons does is, of course, very musical (Gordon is a most unique vocalist). There is, however, more than a sliver of performance art there.

“I really love the idea of arrangements and stuff like that,” Gordon explains. “We just don’t have that —obviously we’re working with a small amount of possibilities. Sometimes if I do hear more things, like if I wish there was a bass line, or if I have a sense of grandeur behind something ... sometimes I write a song and I have no idea how to put it to music.

“Like our song ‘The World is a Cigarette.’ I couldn’t even write the guitar music for it, so we just do it a capella. It’s drums and vocals when we do it live. So I guess we just try to express the nuance of a bigger scheme with very few elements. Obviously it’s minimalist, but we try to convey the idea of something more with what we have.”

Gordon’s been feeling the Savannah vibe, all the way from Texas. “In the last couple years, I’ve had this weird feeling that I really want to live there,” she says. “I’ve never been there before, but for some reason there’s this weird mystique about Savannah, and it’s actually one of the places I’m most looking forward to seeing.”


Gone Grambling

To hear Nicki Bluhm tell it, she wouldn’t be a musician — much less one of the most acclaimed Americana artists of the past year — if she hadn’t met her husband, Tim Bluhm of the Mother Hips, in 2006.

Tim heard her sing at a party, and was enchanted by her voice.

“To have somebody that I really looked up to believe in me, and think that I was good enough to do a 180 in my life, and start singing, was pretty powerful,” Bluhm says. “And I just trusted him.

“I really love his songwriting and his band, and I always have. So to have somebody that I have a lot of respect for come out of nowhere and tell me that I should do that, too, was pretty powerful. It changed my whole path.”

Toby’s Song, her 2008 debut, was praised thusly by Jambase: “A pearlescent treasure kicked up from the sand.”
Bluhm performs at Live Wire Music Hall Monday, Oct. 1 with her band the Gramblers (Tim plays guitar and sings in the aggregation).

Raised on a steady diet of early Raitt and Ronstadt, Bluhm has a voice both tender and soulful, and the band makes music (see the new album Driftwood) that evokes the best of 1970s singer/songwriter–based country rock. Nicki and Tim even cut a brilliant acoustic duets album together that’s half Parsons/Emmylou Harris and half Johnny & June.

Her musical hard drive, Bluhm says, “definitely got broader when we got married. Our vinyl collections merged!

“He opened me up to a lot of stuff that I didn’t really know about. A lot of early Bee Gees stuff, Merle Haggard and lot more of the country stuff. I loved Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, but I started to get deeper into the web of older music that I ended up being shocked that I hadn’t heard before. That music that you hear that you’re like ‘How have I not heard this?’ And it all kind of clicked in.”

It sounds warm and familiar, but a throwback? Back up, Sam. It sounds as fresh and inviting as it should. There are no cobwebs on the Gramblers, a band that includes pedal steel, acoustic and electric guitars, bass and drums.

And Nicki Bluhm’s astonishing voice.

The video for "Jetplane":

“We certainly don’t intend to sound a preconceived way,” Bluhm explains. “We just sort of do what we do. But it’s really rooted, I think a lot, in harmony singing. We love singing harmonies — it’s definitely a thread that runs through most of our songs.

“We’re trying to honor the old songs that we like, but do it our way.”