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Rook and the Ravens: The most impressive new band you've never heard of 

Rook and the Ravens like to think of themselves as the world's "least known supergroup," a claim to fame — or lack thereof — that wears thin pretty quickly. Odds are there's at least one supergroup out there that's flown completely beneath the radar.

"True," sighs keyboardist Tom Cartledge, who shares vocals with guitarists James and Joe Fay, each of whom has fronted bands that went nowhere. "I guess that's the competitive nature of trying to be the world's least famous supergroup. It's a tough game to play."

It's also a game the five young Brits seem destined to lose. The BBC gave Rook and the Ravens an "Artist of the Week" write-up that declared them "articulate, edgy, blistering and self-assured," while the Irish Daily Mirror celebrated the fact that "yet another staggeringly great band" has emerged from the city of Manchester.

Recent tracks like "The Judge" and "Little Rib," which were produced by Andy MacPherson of Doves and Teenage Fanclub fame, make it clear the band can live up to the hype.

They're also unique: Cartledge and the Fay brothers are fond of trading off lead vocals within the same song, and their three-part harmonies are on par with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Newer songs rival Bends-era Radiohead and rock harder than early Queen. What other band can do all that and still sound at least as contemporary as Alt-J and Fleet Foxes?

Actually, the mere fact that Rook and the Ravens have three lead vocalists automatically make them 50 percent better than Supertramp.

"I think that's statistically correct, yes," responds a bemused Cartledge. "I guess it does make us unique in a way, because we rarely see bands on the road who have three leads and can do three-part harmonies."

Pressed further, Cartledge admits that he's never seen another band do that.

"I think the only time you hear three lead vocalists in a song is with boy bands. But it's kind of important to stress that's we're not like the Backstreet Boys. We're equally good-looking, but we don't sound like them."

Internal theft

While L.A. lifestyle magazine High Voltage insists it's just a matter of time before Rook and the Ravens "reach the dizzy heights of mass notoriety and unanimous acceptance," the rest of America has yet to sign on.

The band is currently in the middle of its first U.S. tour, which will include a stop in Denver this Saturday to play the exceedingly intimate Lion's Lair, which holds just over a hundred people. After two weeks on the road, the five musicians have had just one day off.

"We're doing some serious traveling and we've drunk many types of beer and whiskey along the way," Cartledge says, "but we're somehow still going."

The band has already logged endless miles touring the U.K., during which their musical inclinations have become increasingly incestuous.

"Over time, everyone started stealing songwriting ideas from each other," says Cartledge, while noting that their personal lives no longer inspire lyrics like "The wheels will keep turning / But you'll be beneath them."

"One of the hard things is that, when you're actually OK again, it's like, 'Oh, do I have to write a happy song now?'"

Fool's mate

These days, the band's sound and vision are a crafty mix of classic and modernist elements, right down to what appears to be a '60s Vox organ that's enthusiastically punished in videos and onstage.

"Right, we've successfully fooled you with that one," says Cartledge of what turns out to be a Nord Electro 3 in disguise. "Our whole backline is cream-colored — all our amps, the guitars, the drum kit, everything — and then I turned up with this big red obscene thing, which didn't really complete the look. So our bass player actually built the keyboard housing, and we take it everywhere with us now."

While the look may be vintage, the music has moved well beyond that of their 2009 debut album, Sixteen Holes in Sixteen Souls.

"I'd only just joined the band at that point, and these guys had a collection of songs with a quite poppy Americana kind of sound," says Cartledge. "I think that now we play a very harmony-driven, sort of balls-out, rock. But we're also obviously all fond of Crosby, Stills and Nash, and we're massive fans of the Killers and Radiohead. It's just kind of, I don't know, bringing a more modern rock aspect to those harmonies. And that's what we've done since Day One, really."

While the group has since released an EP, they've yet to finish a second album.

"It's not that we've neglected it," insists Cartledge. "We've been extremely busy over the last five years recording, recording, recording."

It's just that there've been setbacks along the way. "At one point, we went through a phase where we wanted to have a concept album. We decided to sack it off, but some of those songs we still play now."

So what was the concept behind what might have become the world's least-known rock opera?

"Well, that was the thing," says Cartledge. "I think the problem with the concept album was that it really didn't have a concept."

bill@csindy.com

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