Electric cellos don’t have F-holes. They don’t need them. Those dainty, scroll-shaped cuts in the delicate wood are usually used to give a voice to the instrument, echoing all the soaring highs and damning lows, but when amps and pickups are introduced it all becomes sort of obsolete. Sort of.
This was the achingly tangible metaphor that ran through my mind when Chicago duo The Loneliest Monk took the stage at Reggie’s Rock Club last week. As cellist Michelle Morales arrived onstage, she unpacked an electric variant from her case. The strings were steel and the body shockingly slim, but what struck me the most were the brackets mounted to the instrument to facilitate playing position. They snapped on a skeletal outline – a ghostly visage of a cello. It was unsettling for some reason. I felt as if there was already something missing from the evening — all this before they started playing.
It was that spectral aura that informed the rest of the evening. The set was eclectic and hard to pin down, switching between crashingly loud and hauntingly soft several times within each number. Drummer Miles Benjamin, who also took on intermittent vocal duties, backed every screeched overtone with a tremendous fill and every pizzicato pluck with malleted rush. And despite this series of intriguing experiments, I was still underwhelmed by the band. Chalk it up to an awkward environment (Reggie’s is a prominent punk venue) or a lackluster audience (they handed out gummy bears before the set and hardly anyone took the bait) but everything just seemed disjointed. More often than not, it sounded more like there was a cellist onstage and a drummer just happened to be playing nearby, or vice versa.
Still, the band showed their versatility on their sleeve, defying standard genre classification and using the articulate nature of their instruments to the fullest degree. The main strength of The Loneliest Monk’s live set was their ability to sound like a quartet or quintet when sampling, looping, distorting or just plain blowing the lid off the venue with pure volume. Those old standbys of cello-playing — precision and interplay — will lead the group to their full potential, but until then they’re simply illustrating the concept of Morales’ electric ghost cello — sleek and avant-garde, but ultimately lacking body.