Music

The Missionary Position

Seattle band with a non- traditional take on a classic

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Choosing the right name can make all the difference in the world for a band--things may have turned out very differently for Black Sabbath if they'd stuck with their first appellation: The Polka Tulk Blues Band. But the more clever the name, the more likely a Google search will reveal that someone else has already thought of it. So sometimes the best thing a band can do is let serendipity do its thing: let the name, like inspiration, find them. That's what Seattle-based The Missionary Position did.

When Jeff Angell and Benjamin Anderson began playing a Thursday night residency at a club in Tacoma, Wash., they hadn't yet settled on a name. Those Thursday lounge nights were billed as The Missionary Position, and Angell said people thought that was the band's name.

Angell originally wanted to go with The Consequences, but found almost immediately that it wasn't his to take.

"A decade ago it would be forever before you found out someone else had that name," Angell said. "Now, some kid who has never played a show before can have that name locked up on his Myspace or a Web site. You can't compete with that.Unless you have a good lawyer. And a big checkbook."

So rather than fight it, Angell and Anderson embraced what the steadily growing number of Thursday night fans already had--they were now in The Missionary Position. Done playing "cock-rock swagger" music (he was formerly with Washington-based Post Stardom Depression), Angell felt the name sort of signified the simplified direction he was going.

"It's back to basics, isn't it?" Angell asked. "Looking somebody in the eye? That's a romantic way of looking at it, I suppose."

While Angell may romanticize his musical moniker, The Missionary Position's music is anything but mushy.

The seriousness with which Angell and Anderson approach their sound seems to stem from a crystal clear understanding that if they take it too lightly, it just isn't going to work.

Before The Missionary Position even came together, Angell didn't feel like he was having much luck with music and was ready to throw in the towel.

"In my mid-20s, I was ready to call it good," he said. "I'd made some ground [musically], but I was discouraged. And then my ex-wife said, 'Look at John Lee Hooker, man. He never even recorded until he was 33. Look at Howlin' Wolf. He never made a single until he was 41. Leonard Cohen never made it until he was like 34.' Those guys are all cooler than anyone I ever grew up on."

But even with that in mind, as he and Anderson began to play together and record their debut release, Diamonds in a Dead Sky, they started to wonder if there was any point in trying. Maybe all the good music had already been made in the Mowtown and Stax Records era. Was rock really dead? No. Was it still worth making? Yes. In a genre full of dullards, they felt their songs were like little diamonds. Hard, strong little gems indeed.

Diamonds is swampy, blues-based, soulful guitar rock with enough electronic ripples to lend it a menacing air. It's a modern take on blues, with the occasional haunting chorus in the background, minor chords, metronome-precise rhythms and an arms-open-wide attitude toward electronics, horns, woodwinds, keyboards and feedback. Add Angell's gritty vocals to the mix and the whole album is as dense as a warm front.

But that deep dark music is, in large part, a vehicle for Angell's introspective lyrics, each word carefully chosen as if it were a fine jewel.

"We won't put a song out that has a lyric I don't believe in," Angell said. "Some people are looking at: what's the flavor of the month? I'm looking at: can I maybe one day write lyrics as good as Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave?"

He's on the right track, with lyrics like elements of a scrapbook made up of how he sees the world today. In the melancholy "Here Comes the Machine," Angell laments, "It's too late already / they won't be happy 'til they own everything. / These days there's no telling who's the prophet / and who's pulling the strings."

Justin Cantrell, the local promoter who booked the Boise appearance said he's glad he did, even though he has a show at Gusto that same night (see Listen Here, Page 22).

"I saw they were touring so I sent them a note and told them I liked their music. I told [Angell] he sounded like Dax Riggs' (from Acid Death) solo stuff," Cantrell said.

If the show goes well, Cantrell hopes to bring The Missionary Position back to Boise in March for a Skate Night at Gusto. There's no reason why it wouldn't.

With Michael Alex on drums and Gregor Lothian on sax, The Missionary Position's transition from a twosome to a foursome seems to be working.

"There's a certain kind of tribe mentality of being in a band. You get this little gang of boys extending their adolescence or whatever. But to me, it's always been my family. As far as my regular family, I didn't have the most solid background.

"A band kind of became my family. [The Missionary Position] is pretty like-minded, and now this drummer is turning out to be pretty consistent, so if we can make it work for Gregor, that will be our unit for a while."

However, Angell is also not willing to let the whims of someone else get in the way of making music.

"If you have too much of a group impact, as people start to fall off, you're just left on your own," he said. "If somebody else wants to join in, that's great, and if they want to stick it out, we're happy to have them. On the other hand, we're not going to let that hold us back.

"I've found what I like to do with my time on the planet: write songs and play live."

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