Going against typecasting

Few bands are as startling visually--or as mixed a bag--as Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys. First of all, there's Wonderland herself, the proud possessor of a truly impressive set of pipes that seem to make all previous comparisons to the Big J (Janis, as in Joplin) seem a bit hasty. Pretty and undeniably female, she eschews the skintight crutches that many female singers rely on to win over a crowd, preferring tomboyishly torn jeans and flannel. Her long, dark hair is punkishly streaked with slashes of color--pink, orange, blue--that often match her sneakers.

Guitarist Eric Dane, with his mop of layered hair and a cigarette dangling from his lips, calls to mind British stringslingers like Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, or Ron Wood, with a dash of the Black Crowes' Robinson Brothers--an impression his fat rhythm chords only reinforce. With his long beard and round eyeglasses, bassist Chris King could be an Austin hippie from the mid-'70s, and Leesa Harrington-Squyres--scowling, her nose ring catching the light as she assaults her drums--looks like nothing so much as one of those girls you simply did not mess with back in high school, lest she plant her foot someplace unpleasant.

Family matters have recently required Harrington-Squyres to quit the band, but the ease with which Chris Axelrad stepped into her slot points up an almost familial quality that has no doubt helped the band dominate the local scene in their hometown of Houston for the past five years. Axelrad was around in the early '90s when Wonderland--who started writing songs at eight--Dane, and later King were frequenting places like Danelectro's and Mickey's Mardis Gras, "just hanging out, jamming, and having fun," as Wonderland puts it. Axelrad was the group's drummer when they "were practicing in this totally un-air-conditioned place on Monday afternoons."

"After a while, we realized that playing and writing songs together was more fun than anything else we were doing," Wonderland recalls. Another pal was drummer and local fixture "Screamin'" Kenny Blanchet. Although Blanchet has his own projects, he's an "honorary member," sitting in and assisting with songwriting whenever possible; the band still does quite a few of his songs. They gradually honed their chops, working on their own songs as well as covers by artists like Buddy Holly, Jimmy Reed, and Bo Diddley. They crept up on regular house gigs and jam sessions around town, but the whole deal was pretty informal.

In 1992 all that changed when the band was invited to the South by Southwest music conference in Austin. "It became a different creature then," Dane says. The lanky guitarist doesn't quite have the background you'd expect from someone playing with a straight-ahead blues-rock group. Born in Paducah, Kentucky, Dane grew up playing "hillbilly" music in a large family. His dad was a Chet Atkins fan, and many of his uncles and cousins picked as well; often they'd all play together. When his parents split up, Dane fell in with an older neighbor with an electric guitar.

"The thing to do when you're out in the middle of nowhere, like Paducah, Kentucky," Dane explains, "is you get yourself a band, learn the songs everybody wants to hear--nobody works back there unless they know [Lynyrd Skynyrd's] 'Gimme Three Steps' and a bunch of Bob Seger--and then you get yourself a house gig at some bar. Then you stay there. I was playing in bars when I was way underage, playing five nights a week."

Dane has a raspy, cigarette-scoured voice, and he rolls his words around and elongates them when he speaks, a delivery that makes him sound like Tom Waits. "It [SXSW] put us in the mindset of 'you better get your shit together now,' and we all of a sudden had to decide a bunch of stuff, like who was going to be our permanent rhythm section. We recorded and mixed 10 songs in three days and went to Austin with that, and then all hell broke loose."

That's easy to understand: Stated plainly, Wonderland--who has lived in Houston her whole life and names Etta James as her hero--has one of the most impressively powerful voices recently heard anywhere, regardless of sex. Able to boom, cajole, promise, growl, and wheedle with equal power, she plays guitar with much the same forcefulness, pounding out chunky rock rhythms and even tackling leads when the spirit moves her. The rhythm section--Harrington-Squyres and King, at least--had the kind of tightness that comes more from intuition than technique (it probably won't be that different with Axelrad). And Dane--when he comps along with Wonderland's guitar--gives a song a rolling momentum that reminds you of two giants going out for a walk. When he leaves the rhythm, it's to inject a spare, lead break cut whole from one of the roots of rock guitar.

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Matt Weitz