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!

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Pre-emptive Retrospective #1: ‘Old’ Music

Janelle Monáe: Q.U.E.E.N

The Ladyist has been dealing with some heavy stuff lately, so here’s a brighter subject.

Janelle Monae
Doesn’t get much brighter than this.

This, for the uninitiated, is Janelle Monáe. Sci-fi visionary. Dance icon. Robot angel. Q.U.E.E.N. Make-up model. Hair magician. R&B superhero. Stop me when this gets too much; she’s too much for words. Instead of words, watch this:

Then watch this:

And lastly, this:

The sharp-eyed among you will notice that I posted the same video three times. This is no mistake; this is to make sure you take in the magic and majesty that is Janelle Monáe. That one-footed slide she does is worth watching again on its own (don’t worry, it’ll be back).

That Letterman appearance was my introduction to this dynamo, and what an introduction it was. Packing the pizazz of James Brown into a tiny, dapper frame, she moves with the kind of fluidity that feels as game-changing as early Michael Jackson performances and writes songs that make Prince sit up and pay attention (he guested on her second album). All of that in one song? Incredible. And that’s before we even begin to talk about her voice.

But then you get to The ArchAndroid, and you realise ALL THAT was only a teeny tiny fragment of the beginning of an idea of what Janelle can do.

The Fritz Lang reference of the cover is the first hint that this isn’t your ordinary pop album.

The ArchAndroid is an epic, a stage musical in audio form. No sound is off limits to Janelle’s voracious creativity: she moves as lightly through dreamy classical-inspired suites (‘Suite II Overture) as she does through pop (‘Faster’), through torch ballads (‘Cold War’, ‘Neon Valley Heart’)  and robo-funk (‘Wondaland’). Each song moves into the next so smoothly that the transition between the nightmare funk of ‘Come Alive (The War of the Roses)’ and the hip-hop-inflected Julie Andrews numbers (‘Mushrooms & Roses’) seems natural and obvious.

Her second album, The Electric Lady, is less keen on the genre-hopping, but there are still flourishes of Bond themes, Herb Alpert, the score to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and brilliantly on-point android-radio interludes to spice up her super-tight funk/soul/groove explosion. That concision makes Electric Lady as less showy album, and it’s maybe not as game-changing as The ArchAndroid, but it’s an incredible record in its own right, and features an astounding array of guests like Erykah Badu, Solange, Esperanza Spalding, Miguel and, yeah, Prince.

Then there are her video clips…

Her clips are as perfectly considered and beautifully executed as her albums, which is no small feat. Janelle herself is a powerhouse, unafraid to show off her ability to sing, dance, rap and act, and she does so while being better dressed than I’ll be on the finest day of my life. They’re art projects, particularly ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’, which continues Janelle’s fascination with black and white contrast.

Even the label-mandated, Samsung-branded clip for ‘Electric Lady’ is more fun than it has any right to be.

Cold War, though, speaks to the human part of Janelle’s work, the heart that keeps this from all being an exercise in showing off.

That intimacy, that directness takes a different kind of strength than the flashy performer, or the would-be artist. It’s a whole other side to a woman who was already as multi-faceted as a gemstone. An artist. A designer. A model. A dancer. A composer. Oh, and a writer.

As she began on her debut EP, Metropolis: The Chase Suite, Janelle frames The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady with the story of Cindi Mayweather, a time-traveling android who just might be a kind of robot messiah. In the way of all good sci-fi (and genre) writers, Janelle uses Cindi and the android working class as a way of getting at race relations, gender relations, sexuality, privilege and a whole host of other ideas. Is that enough for her? Is it what. She’s spoken in the past about turning The ArchAndroid into a graphic novel, and a Broadway production. I for one would be there at the launch of either, given the chance.

I’ll leave you with a great piece by Charles Pulliam-Moore at NPR’s Code Switch blog. He mentioned Janelle in a piece on Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’, Wakanda, and Afrofuturism, and I think you should go read it in full. Here’s a snippet for you anyway, quoting comic book historian Adilifu Nama:

“Afrofuturism creates a space in which blackness is equated with futurism, cybernetics and super-science,” he explained. “All of these ideas undermine the trope of the urban, or the subservient, or the criminal.”

Not just any pop album. No ma’am.

Janelle Monáe: Q.U.E.E.N