Being And Time

City Paper

It’s late on a Monday Night in July at Holy Frijoles in Hampden when Natural Velvet takes—no, commands the stage for the last set in an impressively, exhaustingly long lineup. As the band powers through tracks from “Shame,” its brooding album-length follow-up to 2013’s “Salome with the Head of John the Baptist,” released digitally in June and on cassette earlier this month, the contrast to the opening acts is immediately apparent: Each member approaches his or her instrument with an almost sacral seriousness.

Guitarists Kim Te and Spike Arreaga create an interplay between droning rhythm and high-pitched shredding. Drummer Greg Hatem threads a balance between precision and urgency.  Bass player and vocalist Corynne Ostermann’s tall frame draws attention to the center of the stage, her dark hair parted to frame eyes that seem to look right through you; her bass lines are frenetic, and her vocal delivery ranges from quiet cooing, to impassioned wailing, to stentorian shouting, often in the space of a few lines. The members of the band remain apart, mono-focused on their individual efforts, as though each is in his or her own world. But the effect is an accretive, densely layered, gorgeously integrated tsunami of sound that washes violently over the crowd.

Earlier that afternoon, Natural Velvet, much calmer,  gathers at Canteen on Charles Street talking about, among other things, the ambitious band’s somewhat inauspicious beginnings two years previously: “We just started jamming during the summer because we were all broke and bored and had instruments and Spike had a basement and air conditioning,” recalls Te.

Ostermann, who grew up in Chicago and whose father was a band teacher for 35 years, came to the city to study painting at MICA, where she met Arreaga and Te. Drummer Greg Hatem is the band’s only Baltimore native. He attended Berklee College of Music in Boston and currently owns and runs the Hampden curiosity shop Bazaar.

Natural Velvet’s origin in basement jam sessions undoubtedly contributes to the organic polish of its live performance. And this chemistry extends to the band’s studio efforts.  The richly textured, borderline-droning aural landscapes—think Siouxsie and the Banshees or The Cure in the “Seventeen Seconds” to “Pornography” era—are built around weighty, decidedly literary songwriting, which is done almost entirely by Ostermann.

“I realized that if I’m singing the majority of the stuff then it’s coming through my point of consciousness and I had to create some kind of a unified voice,” she says. The singer, who claims an affinity for the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty as well as “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” tends to write songs with a certain intellectual distance, or a “weird, glued-together existentialism,” as she describes it. 

This is apparent on songs from “Salome” such as ‘Dark Inertia,’ which Ostermann explains was inspired by Martin Heidegger’s opus “Being and Time,” and ‘Mirror Stage,’ an allusion to Jacques Lacan’s description of the acquisition of subjectivity in infants. Ostermann thinks a lot about how the lyrics fit into the unique sonic architecture of each song. “I’m interested in the intersection of lyric imagery and the sense of musicality of a song,” she says, and thinks this has something to do with why she can’t write songs about concrete things.

Gender and issues relating to women’s bodies and women’s voices are recurring themes on several of the songs from “Shame”—Ostermann minored in gender studies and these are also important to her painting. On ‘Baby Dear,’ Ostermann deals quite directly with the relation of the body to the gaze: “My body is central to my existence/ My body you read like an open book.” ‘Allies,’ the title of which plays on the similarity of the word to “all lies,” treads similarly fearless ground: “Go ahead and take it, I don’t really need it/ Go ahead and take me, I can’t really feel it.”

Album highlight ‘Silent Girl’ presents a particularly interesting case. On the one hand, it is very clearly concerned with issues of voice and the denial of voice: “You swept the words from my mouth and replaced them with sand, hoping I would choke/ To prove my dumbness.” 

But the song also gives a sense that Ostermann is performing a sort of dialectic with herself, as though she can perhaps stand in for both the “I” and the “you” of the song: “I kept my thoughts and they bounce back to me and I hold them off.” 

If there is uncertainty as to whether ‘Silent Girl’ achieves any sort of synthesis, Natural Velvet’s live performance puts this to rest.  The most powerful song from its set at Holy Frijoles comes from new material the band members plan to release before the end of the year, right on the heels of the release of “Shame.” Ostermann’s vocal delivery has a heightened, accusatory quality. Arreaga’s and Te’s guitars are at their most feverishly immersive and Hatem’s percussion suggests Stephen Morris of Joy Division’s drumming-at-the-gates-of-hell qualities.

They are in their element: out of the basement, on the stage, demanding attention and confronting the audience with something as sensual as it is challenging. Natural Velvet insists upon being heard. 


Natural Velvet plays Club K on Sept. 22. For more information, please visit naturalvelvet.bandcamp.com 

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