Husband-and-wife squad gets quirky
Just when you thought you'd had your fill of co-ed rock duos, here comes a pleasant surprise.
Kevin and Anita Robinson are Viva Voce, whose third and latest album, 2004's The Heat Can Melt Your Brain, is the last thing you'd expect from a cute alterna-couple working in a home studio: a lushly produced tour de force of psychedelic pop and progressive space rock.
It's a record soaked with spooky vibes, quirky twists, big beats and a sort of melancholy sweetness the band likes to call "dark optimism." Viva Voce's sound is rooted in simple pop songs that can explode without warning into elaborate mini-epics. Along the way, one might hear shades of the Beatles, the Pixies, Bowie, Beck and maybe even ELO and a little bit of Philly soul. But the most obvious comparison, strangely enough, is '70s Pink Floyd, with tasteful guitar accents, disembodied vocals, eerie washes of mellotron and plenty of reverb.
Speaking by phone from the road, Anita Robinson says she's heard the Floyd comparisons before and has no problem with the idea.
"I've always had a healthy respect and love for records like Dark Side of the Moon, because I have a lot of really good memories associated with classic rock and learning how to play guitar and having my first cover band with my older brother," she says. "A lot of my favorite guitar players are classic rock guitarists, and David Gilmour is certainly one of my all-time favorite guitar players. I'd say we're getting compliments when people are saying that."
Both band members write, sing and play a laundry list of instruments. Though Anita primarily plays guitar, in the studio she also plays bass, percussion, keyboards and kazoo. Kevin plays primarily drums, but on the album he also contributed guitar, keyboards, bass, percussion, saw, kazoo, celeste and "electronic stuff," according to the credits.
For the live show, they remain a duo, using samples, prerecorded tracks and a van full of instruments in a plucky effort to recreate the atmosphere of their albums.
"We have enough stuff for a four- or five-piece band," Anita says. "People tell us they don't miss seeing anyone else on stage, and that's our goal, so it's working."
Married nearly eight years, the pair first joined forces in Muscle Shoals, Ala., and later relocated to Portland, Ore. When not touring, they turn their old house into a maze of instruments and recording equipment.
"We just pretty much cover our entire house with cables," Anita says. "We make use of every square inch."
The Heat Can Melt Your Brain, released in September on the respected Chicago indie label Minty Fresh, has been something of a critical and public breakthrough for the band. They've had songs played on the WB's One Tree Hill and other TV shows, and they already have a collection of songs for the next album, which they hope to start recording this summer after a couple more months touring the U.S. and Europe.
"It's kind of been a whirlwind" since the last album came out, Anita says. "We've been super-busy, and we've had great response, and we're just trying to stay on top of things as much as we can. It's been crazy, but it's been really exciting."
But the question remains: Riding in that van, hauling equipment, working those long hours in the studio - how do they avoid getting sick of each other?
"We just have a sort of attitude like it's us against the world," Anita says. "I think a lot of people can't really imagine spending that much time in an environment like that with their spouses. It doesn't make any sense to me because this is what we've always been doing. It's just the best. We really love it, and it's something we don't take for granted that we're able to do together."
Scott Hall writes about music and stuff at www.onthebeat.org.