Banned in the UK: The ghosts in Agent Ribbons' attic

With its satin headbands, lacy-collared dresses, and affinity for bluesy ballads, Sacramento duo Agent Ribbons is a modern band yearning for an old-fashioned era. Singer/guitarist Natalie Gordon and drummer Lauren Hess write songs about ghost-haunted romances, the scent of orange trees in heat, and the 1940s dating scene, their repertoire bronzed with age like an antique photo album pulled from the stacks in your grandmother's attic.

Like Holly Golightly, Jolie Holland, and other indie chanteuses with an ear for simplicity, this pair's charm lies in leaving its romantic tunes unadorned with 21st-century gimmickry. Their songs move along in controlled waltzes, their lyrics courting listeners with gentle winks. Take the song "Chelsea," where the mating game is played out from under the Big Top: "Chelsea, let's go join the circus/I will take the trapeze, you can tame the lions/And while we are dressing up, I'll buy you popcorn/When the show is over, we'll stay up all night." Or "Obituary," where a blushing bride perishes in 1943 but scans the papers to find a date for the afterlife: "I'm craving love, and none of that 'till death do us part'/Honey, if you're dead then give me your heart."

On these and other Agent Ribbons highlights, Hess hits her kit with restraint, making the beats pulse like a heart in repose. Meanwhile, Gordon's evocative storytelling is delivered via a stunning set of pipes, her voice mirroring that of a jazz diva's moaning, crooning, and cooing. There's nothing kitschy or cloying here, just a knack for writing wonderful tunes that span the generations — sung by a woman with fuchsia-dyed hair. "We both really romanticize the past a lot, and we see things through a romanticized lens when we're writing songs," says Gordon, who lists Nancy Sinatra and singer-songwriter Mira among her vocal heroes.

Gordon and Hess' yearning isn't limited to their music; they also generally seem to live in a time that's not of this decade. In the downtown Sacramento building that houses their apartments, neither owns a computer, and only Hess has a cell phone ("And I was the last person to get one," she jokes). They're also just as thoughtful about the packaging for their songs as they are about recording them. For Agent Ribbons' sole full-length, On Time Travel and Romance, in 2006, the pair's living rooms became a sprawl of glue guns, playing cards, and glitter flakes. Their industrious "factory of two" produced 800 Time Travel covers: collages that included bits from old magazines, nature books, buttons, and gold foil. "We're pretty crafty and stick to doing random projects in DIY, old-style," Hess says. "Neither of us is into graphic design; we're more into doing things by hand."

While Agent Ribbons' story is mainly one of sweetness 'n' fabric scraps, it does have a dark corner: Hess and Gordon were recently banned from setting foot in Britain for the next ten years. What crime could these two possibly commit to become such enemies of the state? A little fib about the 14 shows they'd scheduled overseas. Earlier this summer, they were going through U.K. Customs to play opening gigs for the Charlatans U.K. and San Francisco's Dodos. To circumvent the $500 visa imposed upon touring musicians, the two said they were tourists. "We banked on the fact that it wouldn't be a problem for us to go in as travelers because we really were losing money on tour," Gordon says. "We didn't think we'd be a big concern for the United Kingdom."

Customs officials didn't see things the same way. They put the women's names through Google, noticed all the tour dates, and sent them packing back to the States — with a ten-year ban to boot. "We think that was incredibly extreme, but I do understand why they had to deport us," Hess says.

Luckily, the band hasn't been locked out from the entire European Union. Agent Ribbons will play shows in France and a festival in Spain this summer. But first, they're swinging down to San Francisco to perform at the Knockout on Monday, Oct. 6. The old, divey bar will be the perfect setting to hear songs like "Margaret," the Ribbons' little ditty about a ghost who tells a gal to break up with her boyfriend. Like the rest of the Ribbons' romances, the song is haunted by a rich musical past, one you hope never gets spooked out of their vintage sound.

 
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