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Bone Up

Pop and noise meet at the Head of Femur

Musically speaking, St. Louis can be an embarrassing town. Picture this scene at the Way Out Club a few weeks back: Head of Femur, an eight-piece rock orchestra from Chicago, put on a barn burner of a show. Band members danced on chairs, banged gongs, shredded violins and generally rocked out as if no one was watching. That was the problem: No one was watching, save for this writer, the band's merch man and Richard Beckman, the Way Out's bartender/soundman/musical theorist. And while it was a thrill to have a private performance of challenging, interesting and danceable music, I couldn't help but apologize on behalf of the city of St. Louis for the paltry showing.

The above example is an object lesson in what's wrong with the St. Louis music scene and what's right with Head of Femur. The band had a great time and played with truckloads of conviction and skill despite the negligible crowd.

"A lot of people [in the band] will say that the Way Out show was their favorite show on the last tour. It was a great last-show party," says Head of Femur's Matt Focht.

Head of Femur is a complicated affair. There are three principal members (guitarists Focht and Mike Elsener and keyboardist Ben Armstrong; all three trade vocal duties) and a rotating cast of performers that fill out the vast sound. The band rose from the ashes of Pablo's Triangle, a freak-out/experimental band from Lincoln, Nebraska. They have been playing as Head of Femur for a few years, and their first disc, Ringodom or Proctor, fits more invention and musical ingenuity into 45 minutes than most bands can muster across several decades.

The name "Head of Femur" harkens back to Elvis Presley's appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, during which the cameramen were instructed not to shoot below the top (head) of the King's femur bone, lest American audiences see wanton gyrations. The band explains the name as "the point where rock & roll becomes sex," though there is little overtly sexual about the band unless you are turned on by hairpin rhythmic changes and complex key signatures.

Though most members of the touring production of Head of Femur now reside in Chicago, many have lived and played in the fertile musical town of Omaha, Nebraska, home of the famed Saddle Creek label. Focht has played drums for Bright Eyes over the past six years, and violinist Tiffany Kowalski is also a member of the country-folk ensemble Mayday. So why did the band leave a burgeoning scene in Omaha for Chicago, where indie bands are more plentiful than frustrated Cubs fans? "It's a pretty homogenous scene in Omaha; you have [Saddle] Creek and everything falls under that. We're all friends with them, but we don't have a lot in common in terms of sound," says Ben Armstrong.

Instead of playing off the impressive-but-monotonous "Omaha sound" (if there is such a thing), Head of Femur opts for a more grandiose landscape, a place where all ideas are entertained and most of those ideas can be placed masterfully in a song. Juggling eight instruments can be tricky, but the sound is never cluttered and always tasteful. Head of Femur is an exercise in well-directed madness, where conventional orchestrations meet twisted pop genius.

Head of Femur's willingness to take on so many members speaks to the band's sense of musical adventure, though it was not part of the original plan. "All the orchestration and everything was more accidental than you might think. Initially it was a three-piece, but we needed to play live and get a bass [player] and drummer," explains Armstrong. From there everything was built up organically, with friends, roommates and old bandmates eventually jumping on board. Adds Armstrong, "Having a large musical vocabulary and a lot of people to work with is important to make the songs we want to make."

The band could list off any number of influences, but it's more fun to try to pick them out yourself. The breakdown in "Finally I've Made It Nowhere" sounds like it came right out of either a Ravi Shankar jam or the coda to George Michael's "Father Figure." Elsewhere, Kinks bass lines dance with Martin Denny's marimba, while Love's horn section vies with the 101 Strings Orchestra for attention. Confused, yet a little intrigued? That's how Head of Femur likes it.

The three core members bonded over a shared copy of The Left Banke's greatest hits and started writing songs in that pop-baroque vein, but don't look for anything as straightforward as "Walk Away Renee" in a Head of Femur set. The inclination to look backward while thinking forward comes out of having a minimal CD budget and recognizing the impossibility of keeping up with the throng of new "important" bands.

"It's hard to pay attention to current bands. We don't really follow current stuff -- that might be bad for a band trying to make it. None of us know what's going on, but we try as much as we can. It's way easier to get ahold of older stuff, and we've been kind of drawn to the '70s," says Armstrong. And while the pop aspects of the 1970s come out strong in Head of Femur's songs (there just might be a cover of Elton John's "Holiday Inn" at the upcoming show), there is a strong experimental strain in the band as well. A cover of Brian Eno's "The True Wheel" is a highlight of both the CD and the live set, and the nonsense lyrics and irresistible rhythms serve as a blueprint for the band's overall ethos.

Look for big things from Head of Femur in the future. In typical big-thinking fashion, an eighteen-piece incarnation of the band performed Ringodom or Proctor in its entirety at a sold-out show at Schubas in Chicago. And although its first record has only been out for a few months, the band already has its next three records written and plans to release a DVD of behind-the-scenes moments and onstage antics. But you, dear reader, have a chance to get in on the ground floor and see Head of Femur before mainstream media pounces upon them and uses their songs to sell iPods and French fries. Come on, St. Louis; come join the Head of Femur party. Don't just do it for the music; do it for the civic pride.

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