Pre-emptive Retrospective #2: ‘New’ Music

Finding new music was somewhere between a delight and a biological requirement. Limited as I was, my senses became heightened like a mundane Daredevil, able to sniff out a feminine pronoun in a write-up from 20 paces. This effect wasn’t exclusive to music, but that’s the medium I’m most connected to, so the need was more immediate.

I knew I needed to find more; what I hadn’t considered was how I might do that. I’d fallen out of touch with music press, and the amount of new music in my life was at an all-time low. I didn’t know where to look, and I still feel there’s too little coverage of female bands and artists in the music media. That’s not exactly a controversial opinion, but it’s a disappointing thing to note even after nearly eleven months of the Ladyist Experiment. If you’ve got a secret corner of the internet, or a got-to place to hear about women who make music, please let me know, because I need it in my life.

That said, music press was (and is) really secondary to friends and peers as a means of discovery. Seeing people talk about an artist on Twitter, or someone sharing an interesting article on Facebook led to way more new and exciting tunes than any online tastemaker. And let’s not forget the simple but deeply appreciated texts, emails, tweets, messages and the like that wonderful people like you sent me to recommend something. Those tips weren’t just valuable for my sanity, but also for my willingness to persist with the Ladyist. So thank you, one and all.

Without further ado, here are a few of the tunes I might never have heard if not for you.

The Staves – ‘Wisely & Slow’

I think I’ll always have a weak spot for folksy harmonies, and the Staves do them better than just about anyone else. Like Mountain Man, the siblings at the heart of the Staves mix British and Appalachian folk in their clean, shimmering harmonies, with the playfulness of WWII-era harmony groups like the Andrews Sisters. Their music of the debut album, Dead & Born & Grown, is sweet, if a little safe, but the songwriting chops hint at a strong future. They’ve got a new album coming soon, and I’m looking forward to a First Aid Kit-style expansion of their sound.

Tacocat – Hey Girl

If you managed to get this far into the Ladyist without seeing the name ‘Tacocat’, you’ve got a career in landmine removal ahead of you. I’ve been hooked on their 2014 album, NVM, for months, and I’m certainly not showing any signs of slowing. The band was recommended to me by way of a friend’s staggeringly cool teenage daughter, which is about as close as I’ll come to being ‘down with the kids’ (even the act of typing that confirmed that I’m no longer a kid; the fact that I did so in inverted commas hints at premature grey hair and the tendency to make noises when getting out of chairs). Tacocat’s giddy pop energy and progressive politics make them a natural fit for me, and my only complaint is that they’ve not got any more albums for me to listen to.

Emmy the Great – Swimming Pool

Jamie McKelvie (artist behind PhonogramThe Wicked + The Divine, generally excellent human) mentioned this track on Twitter late last year, and I haven’t stopped listening to it in the intervening months. Skipping back, Emmy’s previous work was more in the Laura Marling vein of polite British folk, so it’s even more striking to hear ‘Swimming Pool’ emerge so perfectly formed. The just-so reverb on the guitar adds a perfect haze to the track, which pairs with the loping hip-hop-via-Lorde beat to give the song a sun-drunk sway. It conjures the ripples and refracted sunlight of a pristine pool, so much so that even a noted non-swimmer like me daydreams about a dip with every play. And that’s before we get to the subtle class-consciousness that Emmy weaves into the pool imagery. It’s a staggering piece, and I’ll be first to grab the album when it turns up.

FKA Twigs – Water Me

Forgive the obvious jump from one aquatic song to another, but the connections between ‘Swimming Pool’ and ‘Water Me’ extend beyond the overlapping metaphors. They’re sound alike, too, with slow, loping beats and delay that wash the edges off everything. The way each artist uses those components, though, could not be more different. Where Emmy the Great is idyllic, FKA Twigs mixes menace and sensuality into ‘Water Me’, picking apart a failed love from within the safety of obscuring delay and ghostly harmonies. It’s both intensely human and strangely alien, and it’s FKA Twig’s magic touch that allows the latter to enhance the former.

Haley Bonar – Last War

‘Last War’ is the title track to Haley’s 2014 record, a slow-burner of an album that has stayed with me over the last few months. It’s never been in high-rotation, but I’ve found myself turning to Last War more and more of late, in need of the quiet intensity it exudes even as it grapples with its own bleakness. Cover art is usually neither here nor there, but Last War‘s smouldering ruins of a burning house tells you more than you might think about the album behind it.

Orenda Fink – Holy Holy

This is the last in a long line of slow songs, but, unlike the tracks that came before, the stately pace of ‘Holy Holy’ lends it an appropriately reverent air. The slow-picked arpeggios and soft bass call to mind the celestial grandeur of Sigur Ros, a comparison that pays off in the chorus’s two transcendent chimes. This is mana from heaven for music supervisors everywhere: it possesses a quiet certainty that hints at deeper, more spiritual things without being tactless or blunt, and does so with rare beauty.

Ex Hex – Don’t Wanna Lose

Really, I could’ve picked any track from Ex Hex’s Rips, a cracking album that was one of my favourites from last year. It’s throwback garage rock without all the bullshit pretension, a straight-up ’70s mash-note played and sung with the charisma to pull it off. It’s loose, unflashy and charming as hell. ‘Don’t Wanna Lose’ stands out for the dirty riffing of the chorus, but just play the album through in full.

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Pre-emptive Retrospective #2: ‘New’ Music

Pre-emptive Retrospective #1: ‘Old’ Music

As the calendar is keen to remind me, the Ladyist Experiment’s year is almost up! And since I’m plotting an interstate move between now and the end of March, it’s going to come screeching up like a coke-riddled prison escapee in a stolen Lamborghini. I also know that I have been sporadic in Ladyist updates, so I’m going to try and cram in as many recommendations and reflecting packed with searing insight as I possibly can between now and the end of March.

This is the first of such crammings-in, beginning with the music that carried me through the past almost-year. Each subsequent cramming will feature overviews of another medium (podcasts, comics, TV, books and movies). To start with, though, I’ll split music into Old and New; that way, we keep everything from getting unwieldy and save you from readings 6000 words on Neko Case (you’ve got that to look forward to).

For now, let’s look at the Old; that is, all the musicians and bands I knew before the Ladyist started. I noted at the outset that my music collection became much slimmer as of April 1st, and there’s no getting around that: without accurate data (because I haven’t the patience to gather it), I’d say that a mere 10% of my collection was Ladyist-friendly. Pre-Ladyist, I wouldn’t have claimed to be anywhere near equal representation, but I would’ve guessed at a split closer to 30/70.

Redressing that imbalance requires a lot of fresh blood, which I’ll look closer at next time, but the first part of the Experiment involved revisiting the small slice of my collection still available to me. That’s mostly a function of money (of which I am not made), but it ended up providing some of the most interesting material.

As someone who collects stuff faster than they can be consumed, there are reams of albums, DVDs and books that sit on my shelves with plastic seals intact or spines unbroken. I can’t be alone in this, can I? Because of that habit, I found lots of Ladyist-friendly albums that I’d only listened to a few times, and failed to appreciate the first time. And of course, I’m not the same person I was when I first listened, and found plenty of new ways to appreciate old loves. Such as…

Neko Case

No, I’m not going to oppress you with 6000 words on Neko; I’ve spilled enough words on her already, and will doubtless spill more in the future, so I’ll save myself (and save you).

I’d been a Neko Case fan for years pre-Ladyist, or at least I thought I was. I played Middle Cyclone incessantly at work, and owned at least two other albums and a live DVD. I’d seen her perform at the City Recital Hall in Angel Place, a venue that provided the perfect showcase for her unbelievable voice.

What I hadn’t done, though, was listen. I mean, of course I’d heard the albums, heard her sing, but I think I’d only enjoyed her on a surface level. The sounds she made, the timbre of her music, was enough for me, and I didn’t go any deeper. It was only early last year that I was forced to slow down, to pay closer attention, and she rewarded every bit of that attention. There were marvels I hadn’t even noticed before: the way she slyly changes the pulse of ‘John Saw That Number’ by shifting syllables (listen for the “He flew from the pit/ with the moon ’round his waist/ gathered wind in his fists/ and the stars ’round his wrists” to hear her play with internal rhyme and rhythm with the casual ease of a hip-hop dynamo); the bared teeth of ‘People Got a Lotta Nerve’ that you’d mistake for a grin until you catch the steel in her eyes; the way she carves up country, bar-band rock and an unfathomable mix of other genres into something that is so singularly her all across The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (an album title so grand I take every opportunity to write it in full).

In short, I’d missed her. I’d missed the nuance, the detail of a real person, and that was my loss. If nothing else comes of the Ladyist Experiment (though there are other things, and many at that), it will have been worth it to really, properly see Neko Case.

Sleater-Kinney

Sleater-Kinney, along with just about everyone else who follows, fell into a similar position as Neko, though in the case of S-K, I knew I didn’t get them. I bought their 2005 album The Woods after seeing a Sub Pop DVD that included the clips for ‘Entertain’ and ‘Jumpers’. ‘Entertain’ instantly carved out a space in my brain that it occupies even now, exposing me to the jet-engine power of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker’s combined woah-oh-ohs. And let’s not forget the adrenaline dump that still comes when I hear Janet Weiss’s thunderous tom-pounding. The song still stands, for mine, as one of their greatest, but my connection didn’t go any further for nearly a decade. Maybe I was put off by the (purposeful) challenge of album opener ‘The Fox’, or maybe I simply wasn’t ready for it; whatever the reason, it went back into my collection half listened-to.

When I came back to The Woods during the Ladyist, though, the stars seemed to align, and that little occupied territory in my brain quickly spread. The dissonant, scrappy sounds suddenly made sense to me, a mind-expanding unity of message and medium: in the howls and shrieks, I heard a defiant refusal to bow to masculine norms or fragile ideas of femininity. Theirs wasn’t so much a resistance as a total denial of the authority they were supposed to bow to, carving out an identity outside the narrow proscriptions for quote-unquote women in rock. They refuse to be pinned down by your boring-ass binaries.

Seeing the documentary The Punk Singer at Girls On Film Festival was critical to this revelation. I had gone through the de rigueur rebellious phase required of all teenage boys, peppered with vaguely incendiary, politicised bands who criticised all the right things from the safe space of Never Having To Do Anything. That’s no slight against the idea of political bands, but it wasn’t until I saw Kathleen Hanna and Bikini Kill that I realised the truly, actually revolutionary potential of music. Shouting about the president or the military-industrial complex is one thing, but it’s got nothing on the sheer power it takes to be a woman who, at the height of grunge, politely but firmly tells the men in her audience to stand back and give women space at the front. It was a brain-breaking moment in a truly superb doco, and an essential part of my understanding Sleater-Kinney.

Since their debut album in 1995, there have been a ton of bands influenced by Sleater-Kinney, but still no-one can touch the originals. Their newest album, No Cities To Love, packs the same snarl as Call the Doctor, and they’re still carving out their own space 20+ years on. ‘A New Wave’ is a statement of purpose, as they declare, “no outline will ever hold us/ it’s not a new wave it’s just you and me”. (Bringing this up was a shameless justification to include the song’s clip, but I stand by it).

St. Vincent

I’m not ashamed to admit that I didn’t quite ‘get’ St. Vincent in her early days. I was drawn to Annie Clark’s debut album, ‘Marry Me’, because of her past as a touring member of Sufjan Stevens’ band, and I liked that album. A few years later, in 2009, I bought ‘Actor’, and I liked that album. Much like Neko, though, I liked the superficial things: the tone of Annie’s voice, or the curious instrumentation. I caught hints of the more menacing undertone in songs like ‘Actor Out of Work’ and ‘Your Lips Are Red’, but didn’t find enough to latch onto; or, more honestly, I didn’t look hard enough. I’m definitely culpable here: I put the burden on St. Vincent to explain to me why she deserved my attention, when I should’ve been the one to puzzle out the idiosyncrasies that kept pulling me back.

Then I saw this:

To be fair, a friend had done a lot of the groundwork to prepare me for this revelation. Anna did an episode of the Ladyist podcast in which we talked about St. Vincent’s self-titled album from last year, which I had not yet heard at that stage. I’d decided I wasn’t the St. Vincent type, and that I wished Ms. Clark all the best as we went our separate ways (I’m sure she was devastated). I can’t pinpoint the moment, but something in the conversation with Anna must’ve made a connection in my brain that I couldn’t make on my own, and I found myself listening more and more to St. Vincent. It’s an album she couldn’t have made earlier, dialling up the nervous energy from her earlier records and delivering it with a Bowie-level mix of certainty and eccentricity. It’s properly weird, and refuses to be ignored: maybe you don’t like it, but you can’t block it out.

Then came That Video, and it was sealed.

Somewhere between her shredding in space, and whipping up smoke with her hair (while still shredding), it struck me how unlike anyone else St. Vincent is. Yeah, the Bowie comparison stands, but more in attitude than character; and the influence of David Byrne following their collaboration is hard to deny, but she’s not defined by that. It’s in the way she plays, the awkward intervals and uneasy rhythms, that resonated with me. The guitar is such a boring instrument, it’s playing so codified over the fifty or sixty years of rock that it seems impossible to do anything interesting with it. But like Sleater-Kinney, St. Vincent carves out her own space, solo by solo, and does so entirely on her own terms.

Janelle Monaé

To talk too much about Janelle would be repeating myself: the story of my new/renewed appreciation of her many, many charms is very much the same as the three above, and I’ve already talked at length about the power of Ms. Monaé, but I can’t pass up the excuse to drop in the video of her performing ‘Tightrope’ on Letterman just once more.

Ok, it probably won’t be the last time. Don’t hold it against me.

I do go on. I’ll wrap up now, but be sure and come back to hear about the New music I came across in the course of the Ladyist Experiment. That’ll be along real soon!

Pre-emptive Retrospective #1: ‘Old’ Music