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Play well with others
Victory at Sea and Andrea Gillis
BY BRETT MILANO

Since Victory at Sea have featured a different line-up and sound on each of their four albums, few things the band could now do would come as a surprise. Except for what turns up midway through the new Memories Fade (on Gert Blandsten): a happy love song. Thatís "All Night Superstar," whose catchy chorus and plucked violin suggest bubblegum pop. But given the bluesy rasp in Mona Elliottís voice, the overall effect is a lot more sexy and decadent. Thatís still not the usual mode for Elliott, whose songs tend to the dark and deep-thinking side.

"It never occurred to me before to write something like that," she notes over the phone from a tour stop in Florida. "Iíd have songs I thought were happy, but everyone else would say, ĎNo it isnít,í and Iíd say, ĎDamn.í But that song came out, and Iíve gotten so I really enjoy playing it live as well. Guess it comes with age and really not caring anymore. If Iím saying more about myself in the songs, Iím comfortable, and Iím going to do it no matter what."

Victory at Sea are a band whoíve redefined themselves a few times without really meaning to. Elliottís voice, with its sultry cabaret flavorings, has been there all along ó as has bassist Mel Lederman, but heís gradually switched over to keyboards. Meanwhile, violinist Taro Hatanaka has taken a lot of the instrumental weight off Elliottís guitar. The band are also on their fourth drummer, David Miller Norton, whose approach is a bit more straight-ahead than usual, and theyíve hooked up with rock-schooled producer Andrew Schneider. So the result is both familiar and exotic, proving that thereís more than one way to make a loud rock album. Victory at Sea just made one with piano and violin as the main instruments, and no bass.

"All Night Superstar" aside, Elliottís songwriting hasnít lost its darker intrigue. "Love Is Ageless" makes a powerful opener, with the slow-build arrangement giving her room to wail and the lyrics taking a rather bleak view of old age. "You might recognize the sign I took that title from," she points out. "Thereís a nursing home in Cambridge right outside Central Square with a sign that says, ĎLove is ageless, please come in and visit.í At that time, I was in nursing homes a lot [she had a sick relative] and seeing a lot of people who didnít have any visitors. It made me think that our culture doesnít lend itself to aging anymore. You donít see an old person as someone who might have great ideas and experience; itís more like, ĎOoh, itís an old person, donít look.í My impulse at those times is to wish that I could do something; then I get frustrated with my inability and figure I could at least write a song."

The love songs are equally cathartic ó in fact, Elliott does a withering vocal tone so well that "Happy for You" sounds mighty sarcastic, though she swears it isnít. But "Break of Day" is without doubt an end-of-the-relationship song, and itís enhanced by one of the recordís main production frills ó a multi-overdubbed vocal chorus that carries it into spookier territory. In short, itís the last song youíd want to write when your romantic partner happens to be in the band. "Poor Mel ó heís always asking me why I write songs like that," Elliott notes. "And I say, ĎWell, we go out and weíre in the same band. What else do you expect me to write about?í "

Memories Fade winds up as a breakthrough album for Victory at Sea, one that adds some production sheen without losing the rough edge. "We spent a lot of time on this one," Elliott says. "It sounds very clear, and I think itís pretty true to who we are live." And it wraps up another era for the band: Hatanaka is going home to Japan, and since alt-rock violin players are hard to come by, theyíll likely be back to a guitar-driven format when they next play in town (tentatively in mid December). "Iím not really good at seeking people out. So unless another violin player happens to fall into our lap, weíre probably going back to a three-piece. Iíve liked this line-up a lot, and we just found out about Taro leaving, so itís always something."

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Issue Date: November 12 - 18, 2004
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