MAURA DAVIS ISN'T one to throw idle punches around the shrubbery. On the phone from her home in Richmond, Va., Denali's meal ticket discusses the possibility of getting signed to a major labelan issue that can leave even the most seasoned indie rocker hemming and hawing like a candidate for officewith the offhand rapacity of a wolverine in a butcher shop after hours. "I hope it happens soon," she deadpans. "I think it'd be awesome to be on a major. I just hope they don't ask me to wear a tube top or a belly shirt."
So much for equivocation. Davis' career code orange undoubtedly springs in part from the fact that she's been hard at the game for a while now, ever since she, brother Keely Davis (bass, electronics), and drummer Jonathan Fuller (both also of Engine Down) formed Denali in April 2000, with guitarist Cam DiNunzio rappelling aboard mere weeks later. Despite her lack of road miles and gear-huffing merit badges, the classically trained singer has taken to rock like nitrogen to oxygen; the band's eponymous 2002 Jade Tree debut sold 10,000-plus copies, while Davis found herself being compared favorably to Alison Goldfrapp and Portishead's Beth Gibbons.
Denali's release also left the unconvinced and unconvertedas well as some fansinsisting that the quartet sounded like a goth band fronted by a lounge singer. It's not hard to understand why: Denali are a darkish, minor-key sort of aggregate who don't exactly skimp on the atmospherics, and Davis' lush melodies and powerful, unaffected voice hark back to those prerock days of yore when songwriters used all 12 notessometimes in the same songand singers were expected to be able to hit every one of those notes and hold it without conveying the impression that it might very well be their last. Plus the album could just have easily been called Their Slow and Stately Majestic Motherfuckers' Request.
BUT ON THEIR brand-new The Instinct (Jade Tree), Denali have jacked up the tempos and shit-canned most of the subtle electronic ectoplasm that permeated their first effort. Davis explains the change in velocity with her usual circumspection. "I decided I wanted to write more rocking songs," she enthuses. "Plus I got sick and tired of people asking me why I was so depressed all the time."
The Instinct's dearth of electronic embellishment is more a matter of circumstance than intention. As DiNunzio explains by cell phone, Keely Davis and Fuller had to take off for a monthlong Engine Down tour immediately after basic tracking was completed, leaving him and Maura Davis (who plays second guitar, piano, and marimba on the album) to add the finishing touches with producer Peter Katis (Interpol, Mercury Rev). "That's why so many of the backing vocals are Maura instead of Keely," he offers, before adding that he "may have gotten a bit carried away" with guitar overdubs.
Then there's the matter of guitar solos. Denali had none. The Instinct has three. "I'm really shy in that department," DiNunzio admits. "The people that I've always admired as guitaristspeople like Robert Smith and Johnny Marrare not really prominent as soloists. But the songs just seemed to call out for solos."
DiNunzio refuses to take the easy way outthere's not so much as a nanosecond of wankery on the album, and his solos are considered enough to qualify as tiny compositions in their own right. Plus, he's right about the songs demanding them. The sinuous fuzz he adds to "Hold Your Breath" provides the perfect kick in the ass to Davis' reprise of the red-hot-riding-hood gambit that served her so well on Denali's "French Mistake." At first, the singer is the very picture of sweetness and innocence, asking, "What's your reason to kill or not?" But as she waxes more formidable with each repetition of the song's surprisingly major-key chorus, the teaser, "Too many sensations," gets murky in the mix.
Davis' lyrics can be a bit hard to make out on The Instinctto the extent that you have to wonder if maybe it's an intentional move. The trick does make for great titillation on "Real Heat." It's a driving midtempo hulk of a song, with Fuller and Keely Davis laying down a relentless four-on-the-floor bed for Maura Davis' and DiNunzio's tritone-based guitar parts. That's right, tritone: the juxtaposition of the fundamental tone of a chord and its fifth, flatted a half-step. It's every bit as much a staple in metal as pasta is in Italian cuisine, and it's no stranger to hip-hop, either. But it is a rarity in any other genre of pop music, maybe because it's so darn naughty. The tritone was punishable by death in the Middle Ages because church officials perceived it as a way of summoning none other than Satan himself. Or, in this case, herself: Davis coos, "Take a place/Here among/Those who taste/ Anything they want," with enough sauce to leave you with images of the singer offering a bit of apple to the serpenton the tip of her tongue. DiNunzio's seismically lurching solo is easily the guitarist's brightest moment (so to speak) on the album. And Fuller inserts a stunning fistful of impeccably stated triplet fills in unexpected but apt places.
Something similar occurs on "Welcome," The Instinct's final song. Over an elegant, spookily spare guitar and Fender Rhodes accompaniment, the singer, here resembling a haunted Brenda Lee, intones, "I have my own beeline/An apparition/A sensation/Is no guide. And on my way to sleep/Something caught my eye/The light inside is on. Watch your step/Take a breath/If you come in. Did I invite you in?" "Welcome" is easily the best song about telepathya tricky topic, to say the least (and the less you have to say about it, the better)since the Grifters' "Contact Me Now." The song also provides a fascinating glimpse of one of Maura Davis', uh, less obvious talents. Because when the time comes, it just might be she who makes some hapless label exec slip into a nice little midriff-baring number.
Denali play with Rainer Maria, the Catch, and Ima Robot at Graceland, 7 p.m. Wed., Sept. 17. $10 adv.