Everybody?s doing it

After actress Rachel McAdams balked at posing nude, sprawled across a set of satin sheets, on the cover of Vanity Fair this past February, the slightly kinky (and highly airbrushed) layout looked doomed. And then guest editor Tom Ford gallantly (though fully clothed) jumped into the frame with remaining starlets Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley — because, as he put it, “Three girls in a bed is a bedful of girls, but two girls in a bed are lesbians.”

Ford himself is gay, so eroticism and sexual preference seem less in question here than the more-than-two aesthetic — a similar situation for local band Menage, which has recently changed form from an all-girl threesome to a coed foursome.

Upping the ante

“It’s like we got our braces off,” quips original member Mary Ellen Bush. “Not because of the [gender] of the musicians — just because there aren’t as many girls in town who play on the professional level these guys do.”

The guys in question are guitarist Matt Kinne (who also plays with the Zealots and Kellin Watson) and drummer Evan Martin (of Seth Kauffman and the Real Mothers). And while male-female mixed bands are hardly news, for Menage, the addition of testosterone is a major change.

The group, headed by standup bassist Bush and guitarist Sarah McDonald, got its start as a chick-trio sharing harmony duties on folky, novelty-tinged covers and originals. The threesome was rounded out first by Rhett Thurman (who now performs with local Zeppelin cover band Custard Pie) and then by singer-songwriter Allison King. They wore slinky dresses by local designer R. Brooke Priddy. They sold logo-embellished panties at shows.

They shamelessly capitalized on that three-girls-in-a-bed thing. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But after King’s departure from the group, Bush and McDonald had a hard time finding a replacement. “We were holding auditions for a third girl, and it was like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole,” says McDonald. “We just weren’t finding what we were looking for.”

And, even though Kinne and Bush are an item, he wasn’t the obvious choice — at least not immediately. The realization came when the guitarist sat in with Menage’s two singers at a show, along with a drummer. The effect? “The songs,” says McDonald, “are sounding like they’re supposed to sound.”

Wall of sound

So how does the audience feel about the switch from three girls to a more mainstream setup?

“In some ways it’s just a band,” Kinne says. “Like a lot of other bands, when people get used to a certain [sound] and then they get something different, they have to get used to that.”

“I definitely see it as a very positive change,” Bush remarks. “Before, we were in a novelty circuit, which was wonderful, but we were sometimes wishing we could get our sound bigger.”

The Menage of old, prone to swingy, Rickie Lee Jones-derived numbers about ripe tomatoes, has given way to a fuller musical maturity. The band’s newest single, “Shrinking Gun,” foams with surf-rock guitar reminiscent of the B52s, though Kinne points out that not every song follows that equation. Previous numbers have run the gamut from blues and Motown to country and jazz.

“But now the sound is a bit thicker,” he explains. “So hopefully that will permeate through all the songs.”

” … It’s more accessible to people because it’s what they expect,” offers McDonald — though for her, the new line-up feels bittersweet. “Being three girls, the friendship was so tight. So yeah, there’s a little [sadness], but I respect everyone’s decision to change directions.”

For the ambitious Bush, though, the new line-up is simply “the right move.”

She says: “I have no sadness at all.”

And anyway, Menage’s logo-panty days don’t have to be behind them. Now they just have to stock a line of boxers at their merchandise table.

Check out the new Menage line-up at the Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.) on Saturday, July 1, with Seth Kauffman and the Real Mothers. 9 p.m. $8/$10. 232-5800.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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