AEM118 Hank & Cupcakes

In the wave of public attention recently bestowed upon indie/dance/punk duo Hank & Cupcakes, the term minimalist has been applied with greater frequency than perhaps any other. I’ve encountered it in reviews by several prominent publications and blogs, as well as in an array of press releases and publicity materials. Even Hank and Cupcakes themselves have embraced the term. “If I had to define it, I’d call the music experimental minimalist pop,” explains Hank. And so, given what the whole world seems to think, I’m probably going to raise a few eyebrows by admitting what I’m about to admit-I just don’t see it. Although I love what Hank & Cupcakes are doing-A-side “Ain’t No Love” has tallied up enough spins on my computer in the past month alone to merit a tenured position on my top twenty-five iTunes playlist-_minimalist_ is among the last words that I would use to describe it. Terms such as high-energy, strong, seductive, and funky would be more appropriate, and on the spectrum between minimalist and over-the-top, it lies considerably closer to the latter end.

Of course, I’m prepared to offer ample justification for my contrarian beliefs. I suspect that most critics are trying to emphasize that Hank & Cupcakes is a two-piece band. Hank plays bass while Cupcakes sings and beats on the drums. The ingredients, admittedly, are low in quantity, but they’re deceptively potent. Hank gets more oomph out of his instrument than just about any other bassist out there, amply filling the void left by the absence of guitar. His technical ability and sense of groove are undeniable and his mastery of effects-an unfathomably complicated chain of wahs, flangers, and loopers that I couldn’t begin to describe-allows him to transform the bass from a chiefly rhythm-instrument into an everything-instrument. Cupcakes, for her part, lays down hard-hitting beats behind the set and dominates the mic with the soul of a blues diva and the fuck-you-suavity of a disillusioned punk rocker. Put them together and you get something that sounds suspiciously like a full-fledged rock band trapped in the body of an incredibly talented duo-not exactly what I imagine when I hear the term minimalist.

Hank and Cupcakes are the noms de plume of Ariel Scherbacovsky and Sagit Shir. The pair began making music together in their hometown of Tel Aviv and took their act to New York City a little over a year ago. Since then they’ve generated a lot of hype, as one critic phrased it, “sucking in a whole class of the most dour and sophisticated hipsters, forgetting the trends and coolness and making them dance.” There’s an undeniable chemistry between the pair, which probably-okay, definitely-has something to do with the fact that they’re a married couple. “Since we’re a couple, our love and musical communication gives the music a sense of urgency when we play live,” Cupcakes explains. “We create something new every time we play and invite the audience to take part in the process.” Whether it’s urgency, intimacy, or something else entirely, couple-bands invariably project a certain je ne sais quoi that can be highly alluring. It worked for The White Stripes, it worked for Matt & Kim, and it’s working for Hank & Cupcakes, which has the potential to become every bit as successful.

A-side “Ain’t No Love” has enough hooks to become a Top-40 radio hit, enough groove to keep the crowd moving at the discothá¨que, and enough personality to merit respect from the most pretentious of listeners. Cupcakes’ edgy vocals bring to mind Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, while the music is more reminiscent of Sly & The Family Stone or Blood Sugar Sex Magic-era Red Hot Chili Peppers. Structurally and lyrically simple, the song exudes an infectious and upbeat energy that persists even through breakdowns. B-side “She’s Lost Control” explores much darker themes without sacrificing an ounce of intensity. Covering the iconic Joy Division but staying true to its own style, Hank & Cupcakes breathes new life into the song. The lyrics “she’s lost control” seem self-referential when delivered by Cupcakes, producing an unsettling intimacy that no male singer could replicate, accentuated by Hank’s ominous low groove and eerie melodies. The song punches into second gear when the beat drops with discomforting robotic precision-as if control really has been forfeited-and builds steadily toward a climax in which the earlier melodic themes return and spiral together as the beat dissipates in a flurry of cymbals.

Both A-side “Ain’t No Love” and B-side “She’s Lost Control” come from Hank & Cupcakes’ self-titled EP, but to fully comprehend the group’s appeal, you’ll need to experience the spectacle of its live performance. Bands with lead-vocalist drummers are rare, due to both the technical difficulty of singing while beating out complicated rhythms and the challenge of exuding a vibrant stage presence from the confines of the drum throne. Cupcakes surmounts these challenges by standing behind-or even atop-the kit and allowing the rhythmic intensity of her drumming to permeate throughout her body, manifesting itself in dance that seems to drive rather than hinder her punchy delivery on vocals. Hank takes care of the rest, covering so much territory that one critic observed “fans may find themselves scrutinizing the stage, looking in vain for the guitar player that seems to be filling out the band’s sound.” The couple also projects undeniable sex appeal. Admittedly, the relationship between sex and music has been complicated by the rise of MTV, with many lamenting a shift in emphasis from good music to good looks. Nevertheless, music and sexuality have always shared an inexplicable link-a link that Hank & Cupcakes artfully draws upon. Cupcakes’ sultry voice and Hank’s bottom-heavy grooves exude a sexual energy from which their music derives much of its vitality. This vitality is precisely what gets the crowd moving and keeps them listening with rapt attention. Rather than serving as a distraction from the music, sex appeal (exaggerated lipstick, short skirts and high heels) actually serves to accentuate the power and message of the music. Check out this clip of Hank & Cupcakes’ televised performance on Fearless Music and you’ll understand. Or, better yet, go and see them live. Hank & Cupcakes is currently on tour, stopping off in Boston, Philadelphia, and various upstate NY locations before returning to the big apple in late September. For a full concert schedule, check out their MySpace profile.

7-inch removed at artist’s request