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, 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

Experiment #6: Neko Case — ‘The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight…’


Neko Case’s The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You is more than just the single best title for a record ever. It’s an album that’s stayed with me for months, partly because there’s no album like it that I know. It’s restless and inventive at every turn, refusing to settle into any obvious genre. Yes, there’s a basic underpinning of rock in the structure of some songs, and an indelible hint of alt-country in the way she sings, but descriptors like that can’t begin to contain Neko any more than the Opera House could contain that tempest of a voice. On top of all that, The Harder I Fight… is the peak of her gift as a lyricist to date. Sometimes opaque, sometimes painfully bare, her stories are as devastating as the voice that delivers them. It’s an album that grows with every listen, and listening again today was no exception.

It seems to be something of a pattern in this Experiment, that I find myself listening to familiar things and hearing them with new ears (please adjust this metaphor to whatever other medium you choose). The Harder I Fight… is no different, struck as I was by the one-two punch of ‘Man’ and ‘I’m From Nowhere’. I hadn’t missed the clenched-teeth defiance of ‘Man’ and its furious bridge (“a woman’s heart is the watermark/by which I measure everything”, which would make a terrific motto for the Ladyist Experiment, I think); what had slipped me by was the more subtle resistance of ‘I’m From Nowhere’.

(Listen to the whole song, so I don’t have to include every single piece of brilliant lyric)

Softer and more reflective than ‘Man’, it’s no less a definitive statement on gender roles and the obstacles women face in performing businesses like the music industry. The simplicity of a line like, “you say I’m lucky to be here/but I’ve been driving for 21 days” buries the venom at its heart; once she sings, “if you only knew/what my candied fists could do”, though, that challenge is clear. She’s earned her place, and she’ll be damned if she’ll some patronising fuckers get in her way.

I wish I could sing along. That’s a big wish, since Neko’s voice is a force of nature, but it’s also a side-effect of this Experiment that I hadn’t considered earlier. My own baritone voice, perfect for singing along with the likes of Johnny Cash or Matt Berninger, falls apart in the registers more common in my current music collection. It seems obvious, but I’m a little surprised at how much that has thrown me. I’m no professional, but singing along is a huge part of connecting with music for me, as I’m sure it is for lots of people. To be relegated to singing backup or lower harmonies has forced me to reflect on how lucky I am to have my voice so often represented. Since grand, melismatic vocal styles are so prized in female singers, I imagine more accessible, imitable singers would mean a huge amount to those who felt unrepresented by the Mariah Careys of the world. That said, let’s not discount the allure of a great voice: Idina Menzel has become a name familiar to millions after the unique success of the Frozen soundtrack and ‘Let It Go’ in particular, so clearly there’s some resonance there, too.

Or maybe I’m making too much of it. Does being able to sing along matter to you? Am I being an essentially rockist twit for assuming as much? (Probably). What do you sing along to, technical ability notwithstanding?

Experiment #6: Neko Case — ‘The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight…’