Based on Hooray for Now, few would’ve pegged Viva Voce, the Portland-based husband and wife duo of Kevin and Anita Robinson, as a band to watch. It’s not a bad album, but there’s nothing especially distinctive or memorable about it. Anita’s vocals are nice, she stirs up some decent noise with her guitars, and a few of the songs — most notably “Heartstring” and “Fear of Flying” — showcase real songwriting chops. But in the end, nothing about Hooray for Now separates Viva Voce from the horde of likeminded outfits operating at the time. It consists of generic, tuneful, unassuming ’90s-style indie-pop — a little Smashing Pumpkins, a little Helium and Pavement, a whole lot of Yo La Tengo. The protracted silence that followed its release led anyone who’d noticed them in the first place to assume the Robinsons had said their piece and gone on to paying jobs elsewhere.
What a surprise, then, when Viva Voce re-emerged five years later with the marvelous Lovers, Lead the Way, an album full of gently oddball psychedelic pop. Taking their cues from the Elephant 6 bands as well as latter-day Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, the Robinsons — who play all the instruments on their albums — craft memorable melodies and augment them with cleverly off-kilter lyrics and arrangements. Bass does most of the heavy lifting instrumentally, providing the frame on which the couple hangs all sorts of textures, noises and good natured sonic tomfoolery. Viva Voce don’t reinvent the wheel, but they do take all of their influences and assemble them in a fresh and appealing way, making for a charming blend of Mercury Rev’s Deserter Songs and Helium’s The Magic City.
The third album’s title is an empty boast — the Robinsons are far too friendly to actually want to do any harm. They’d much rather swaddle the grey matter in a nice, comforting hot towel. “Alive With Pleasure” alternates between quasi-funk instrumental breaks and acoustic balladry. “Business Casual” is a march with an inventive Anita bass line. “The Center of the Universe,” a love song as galactic travelogue, is a song Wayne Coyne or Jonathan Donahue most likely wish they’d written. Kevin and Anita split vocal duties evenly, and the soundscapes they construct have become more intricate and whimsical. The Heat Can Melt Your Brain is an impressive, eclectic pop album.
The Robinsons remain a fascinating couple on Get Yr Blood Sucked Out, burning through more inspiration and ideas in one album than any band has a right to. “Believer” manages to sound like a mash-up of the Beta Band’s “Dry the Rain,” the Danielson Famile’s “Feeling Tank” and Queen’s “We Will Rock You” — and it’s only the opening track. Kevin vows to collect his enemies’ heads on his desk on the rather pretty “We Do Not Fuck Around,” while Anita sets about to prove that she is one of the pre-eminent guitar monsters working today. Her ferocious extended riffing on “So Many Miles” and “Faster Than a Dead Horse” invites comparison to Robert Fripp’s fireworks on Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire”; she scatters miniature Tom Verlaine squiggles throughout the ethereal “Never Be Like Yesterday.”
Electric iLL is Kevin’s side project with Galaxalog (aka Glenn Galloway of Soul-Junk and Trumans Water) and Slo-Ro (also of Soul-Junk). Kevin constructed the humorously ominous backing tracks, then Galaxalog and Slo-Ro contributed rhymes — via telephone — which were then slowed down and otherwise manipulated. On the CD they share with avant-garde hip hoppers Vla Hemia, the goofily unsettling results make their fellow travelers sound as commercial as the Black Eyed Peas.