PLAYING DETROIT: Virginia Violet & The Rays Modernize Motown with ‘On the Fringe’

Born from a chance meeting in 2016, Virginia Violet and The Rays is the brainchild of musicians Virginia Nastase and Joe Myers. When the two met two years ago, the musical chemistry was incendiary. “We started cranking out songs like it was our last day on earth,” says Myers. Since then, the duo has grown to a nine-piece band, boasting a full horn section and some of the most soulful players in town. They’ve just released their first full-length LP, On the Fringe.

The record is an ode to the indelible sounds of Motown, tinged with a darker twist than you’ll find on most ‘60s soul records. Unlike some of the band’s totems of inspiration – Erma Franklin’s “Gotta Find Me a Lover” and Lou Pride’s “I’m Coming Home in the Morning” – VV and The Rays depart from the traditional topics of love and heartbreak covered in most soul music and offer portraits of tragedy, danger, and sass. From “Chompin’ at the Bit,” which tackles economic disparity in the America, to “Terminal,” a song exploring the relationship between a child and their dying mother, these are certainly not your run of the mill “shoo-bee-doo-bop I wanna love you” tunes.

“I have always found it easier to write about darker topics because that’s when I write the most for therapy,” says Nastase. “Happiness is an experience that is easy to enjoy but tragedy needs to be interpreted and sorted through for me. I think that process allows me to write about those things.” But Nastase isn’t on an island when it comes to songwriting. The pair says they find a balance in their complementary writing styles; Nastase keeps things even keel while Myers prefers the brain dump method.

Although some of their songs lean towards the dark side thematically, the blustering band keeps spirits up with their bouncy, soul-infused arrangements. The four-piece horn section, filled out by Garrett Gaina (baritone saxophone), Adam Dib (alto saxophone), Chris Kendall (trombone), and Dave Vessella (trumpet), adds a layer of brightness that can make even singing about death seem less dim. The brass blowers even go above and beyond on “Muscle Milk,” adding call-and-response background vocals to Nastase’s strong and cheeky delivery.

Recorded in only a few live sessions, On the Fringe feels like stepping into the hottest Motown bar of the 1960s with the angst and unrest that screams 2018. The stellar musicianship is nearly on par with session players from the Muscle Shoals and Motown eras and adds a warmth and authenticity to the record that’s hard to find on any albums recorded post-ProTools. Just as the record would suggest, VV and The Rays’ live performances are even more flooring than the record itself. Though the band doesn’t have any national dates on the book yet, they’re plotting for a tour in the near future and can be seen and heard at scattered shows in the Detroit area.

Listen to On the Fringe and watch their video for “Where I Belong” below.

 

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