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Get to know Denali — before everyone else does.

The Second Coming

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"What has just happened here is Denali," gushed a writer for Richmond.com's The Scene in an article on the band published last May.

That piece on The World's Greatest Richmond Band came a month after Denali's April 2001 show, a show preceded by laudatory remarks in Style, prescient words by the Scenester scribes at Punchline and at least a few wise men following a star burning brightly above our fair city. All that from just a five-song demo and a few shows.

Denali is big-time around here. A musician friend once intimated that he'd do something drastic if I printed the fact that he thought Denaili "played it safe." Another looked over his shoulder and lowered his voice before whispering to me that he was bored with seeing them.

"You know how Richmond is," he said conveying the danger of speaking your mind in an incestuous indie-rock scene.

So forgive me if I was a little nervous talking to Denali's founder and frontwoman Maura Davis, her brother, bassist Keeley, guitarist Cam DiNunzio and drummer Jonathan Fuller in a room filled with knobs and buttons at Sound of Music Studios in late December.

They were there to record their upcoming full-length album with the divine help of Sparklehorse's Alan Weatherhead and Mark Linkous. After recording this self-titled record (due on Jade Tree records in early April), they had toured as far out as Minneapolis, and returned to Richmond for a show at Alley Katz, scheduled for Jan. 18.

Dressed down in destitute chic that morning (for the musician crowd that's noon), these four look like children of Andy Warhol's entourage who just climbed out of bed. Everything the encyclopedia says about popular people seems true: Not only do they get all the breaks and know all the right people (the right connections got them their record deal, Denali admits). They're also good-looking, play in a successful band and have really cool haircuts.

But anyone who thinks it's gone to their heads just needs to ask Maura what she thinks about her band's success: "I feel like I'm finally accomplishing what I've always wanted to do," she whispers while sinking into the couch and keeping her eyes squarely on her brother. "I feel satisfied. Very satisfied." She seems like a gifted performer who just hasn't learned how to handle all the attention.

Maura gets a lot of it, whether in magazine articles — The Boston Phoenix said recently: "the voice of newcomer Maura Davis bespeaks a plaintive melancholy that hints at a heart full of woe, not to mention a CD shelf full of Bjork and Billie Holiday" — or in the dreams of teen-age males. Take Ryan Ripley, the guitar player behind P.C. South, a young five piece pop-punk band from New Jersey. Asked on the profile page of the band's homespun Web site who he'd like to have lunch with, living or dead, he responded: "Maura Davis (from Denali - prettiest girl & best singer EVER!)."

Maura's the only first-timer in this group. People who think their success is just media propaganda or that they are just lucky don't realize that the rest of the band brings years of experience to the table, contends the tall and somber DiNunzio. Keeley and Fuller are both in Engine Down, which, though perhaps less-known in Richmond, has actually gone a lot further than Denali. DiNunzio was in another well-known band called Lazy Cain, and put in a brief stint playing guitar in River City High — both national groups from Richmond. "We already knew how to do it," he says. "We didn't have to wait and learn."

They didn't have to wait for the fans. They didn't have to wait for the press or the heap of cash for studio time from the sugar-daddy label. They sure didn't have to wait to acquire friends to pat them on the back.

They won't have to wait for the backlash, either. They're already perceived by some as overhyped and undeserved. That's understandable. The Strokes come up in conversation at one point, and Keeley interjects, "They were one of those bands that I fell for the hype. I decided not to like them because of the hype." He laughs.

DiNunzio has an answer for that: "I think the only people who are criticizing us [in Richmond] have forgotten that there are other towns." In other words, this band has bigger fish to fry, or a bigger pond to swim in, or some cliche like that. The world at large barely knows Denali exists, and believe it, these four have their eyes on a much bigger prize than being named best local band.

Do they have a shot? Well, the Linkous touch is golden, at least critically if you count the bouquets heaved at his three albums. Philadelphia, whose City Paper journalists routinely call Denali a "smart, artful ... promising young quartet" or some such cheese, seems to want to adopt them. And they're on a label with some big names — well, big names to music geeks who care about such things.

"I don't want to jinx it," Maura says, "but I think there are some good things rolling."



Denali plays Alley Katz with Strike Anywhere and Bats and Mice on Jan. 18, 7 p.m., all ages.

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