Mission and mystery

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Critics walk a fine line when they point their pens in the direction of the Washington, D.C., politico-soul-indie-punk-gospel revival outfit, the Make-Up. Any and all attempts by pundits to define, decry or demystify a group so based upon mission and mystery are met with attacks that question whose side the writer is really on. A rock group talking about taking sides? Well, yes -- as in "Us" vs. "Them."

In the band's lyrics, liner notes and long-winded quasi-cultural-political manifestos, Make-Up frontman Ian Svenonious makes it quite clear that the group stands in direct opposition to everyone against it -- an opposing force he broadly categorizes as "culture."

One cryptic explanation of the band's befuddling logic and belief system can be found in the liner notes to its second LP, Sound Verite (K Records). "Culture vs. Make-Up is the struggle vs. destiny. The struggle to stop history itself" -- a statement as enigmatic as the indie soul band itself and one that lies at the heart of its growing appeal.

What we do know of the Make-Up is that following the demise of its members' former musical incarnations -- the political-party-in-4/4-time Nation of Ulysses and the short-lived riot grrrl excursions of the Cupid Car Club -- the musicians re-emerged and reinvented themselves as the Make-Up, a gospel group with a maniacally preached message and a bring-down-the-house live show. Guitarist-organ player James Canty and drummer Steve Gamboa flip-flopped the instruments they brandished in Nation of Ulysses, while bassist Michelle Mae learned her new instrument from scratch. In the meantime, Svenonious, already the consummate showman, shaped the revival sermon form into a framework for the Make-Up's live set and adjusted quite well to his new role as minister.

"Can I hear U say 'yeah'?" Svenonious howls on the opening track of the band's latest release, Make-Up After Dark. Even on record you can imagine the lanky and well-coiffed frontman falling to his knees and wiping his brow like an indie James Brown. Svenonious comes on like the hardest-working white man in show business. And the Make-Up's performances are always straight from the heart, even if its manifestos aren't. The wild minister whipping the crowd into a frenzy, the band behind him, a tight ruckus of soul and gospel keeping the energy just as high: The medium is the message, and the Make-Up aims to steal back the soul.

"We're trying to build sonic architecture, baby," Svenonious ad libs on After Dark's "We Can't Be Contained," an attack on how "they" (whomever they may be) have sucked the blood out of music and broken down what he goes on to describe as "poor people's only defense."

The intensity of Svenonious' suspicions borders on paranoia. Sound Verite's "Tell It Like It Will Be" repeats the line "Everybody is after me" over and over. And the band's slogan "Make Up Is Lies" points an accusing finger at the group itself.

The Make-Up's real aim may well be to have people mistrust everything. Clues are planted in the band's self-created mythology, its recordings and live shows, that this may all be just a fraud; it's the ultimate coup, a band that becomes gigantic by becoming giant killers.

With the Make-Up, nothing's for sure, except that with two new releases in as many months and its fourth full-length disc on the way, the revival is on, including three live dates in the Detroit area Sunday and Monday (judge for yourself where the Make-Up functions best, up close and personal).

"R U a believer?" asks the band's latest single. And if the Make-Up works its usual magic, we all will be, even if we're not sure what we're supposed to believe. Too good to be true? It's good enough to make you suspend disbelief. Can I hear U say "yeah," child?

Jason Fuller writes frequently on music for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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