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.

Pre-emptive Retrospective #2: ‘New’ Music

Best of the Ladyist (so far)

That title is a little misleading. This isn’t a contract-fulfilling compilation of my Greatest Hits, or a clip-show in lieu of a new episode. Instead, it’s a quick catalogue of some of the most interesting, challenging and delightful things that I’ve come across as part of the Ladyist.

Best Album: Are We There by Sharon Van Etten

Sharon’s previous album, 2012’s Tramp, hadn’t made as much of an impact on me as I’d hoped, so I almost passed Are We There by. If it weren’t for the limitations of the Ladyist, I probably would have completely overlooked it, and that would’ve been my own loss. I clicked with Are We There instantly; ‘Afraid of Nothing’ is a staggering opener, fragile and determined at the same time. The opening piano gives me chills just remembering it, but Sharon’s voice is what sets her apart. In a song so defined by fear, and her strength in the face of it, the way her voice quivers and cracks but does not break speaks to her incredible resolve. It’s an incredibly emotive album that plenty of people will mistake for depressing, given its sombre tone, but Are We There is stronger than it seems.

Best song: ‘Crimson Wave’ by Tacocat

Tacocat’s fizzy, surf-flavoured power-pop is the kind of thing I’d go nuts for any day, so it’s no surprise that their album NVM is one of my most-played for 2014. It’s playful and fun, but has plenty of brains to match its heart. ‘Hey Girl’, a Ramones-y pop song about street harassment, came in a close second, but ‘Crimson Wave’ is impossible to overlook. Not only does it have all the twangy hooks you could want, it’s a song-length bundle of puns and allusions to menstruation. Usually a taboo subject discussed in terms of “freshness” and “girl troubles”, it’s refreshing to hear such casual talk about periods. And really, what better subject for an angry song than the monthly escape attempt of your uterus? Lyrical highlights include “listen to the Cramps on my stereo” and “sew a scarlet letter on my bathing suit/’cause I’ve got sharks in hot pursuit”. What more could you want in a song?

Best doco: The Punk Singer

Full and embarrassing disclosure: I was not very familiar with Kathleen Hanna before I saw The Punk Singer. I’d listened to the self-titled Le Tigre a handful of times, and only started to get them around the time that I flew to Melbourne for the awesome Girls On Film Festival. Of course, I knew the theory (riot grrl icon, agitprop feminist, all-around legend), but that didn’t prepare me for the massive shift in perspective that struck me while I was watching the film. Watching early-1990s Kathleen invite the women at a Bikini Kill gig to come to the front was a revelation, opening my eyes to the transformative power of music in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. The revolutionary promise of music is something we tend to squander (I’m thinking particularly of the unfocused anger of protest bands like Rage Against The Machine), so it’s striking to see a fairly small movement, represented here by Hanna and Bikini Kill, have such impact in pushing back against the hyper-masculine music business. It’s thrilling, inspirational stuff that should be shown to every smart young girl around the time she hits puberty. Do that, and I guarantee we’ll see the explosion of amazing bands with empowered girls at the front.

Best comic: Ms. Marvel (2014)

Molina variant cover for Ms. Marvel #2

The last few months have been amazing for readers hungry for more female leads. Superheroes, supernatural tales, friendship to the max: the spread is diverse and ever-growing. Independent and creator-owned publishers like Image and Boom! have introduced some of the most exciting new lady-led titles like LumberjanesShutter and Supreme Blue Rose, but it’s a pleasant surprise to see major publishers Marvel and DC do something to address their historically poor representations of women. BatgirlStormThor (featuring the still-unnamed woman currently wielding Mjolnir), Gotham AcademyShe-Hulk: the sheer range is wonderful, even if it’s getting to be very expensive for someone who likes to vote with their wallet.

The stand-out, though, was a teenage girl living in Jersey City. Daughter to Pakistani-American parents and raised in an Islamic household, Kamala Khan is an unlikely figure to lead a new world of superhero comics (though she does have the all-important alliterative initials). Those differences, though, are Kamala’s real strengths: in a world of identical lantern-jaws and neatly clipped blonde hair, a little brown girl can make a splash. Freed from the normal expectations of superherodom (dead parents/crushing angst/incredible privilege), creators G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona crafted a hero who feels more human and relatable than any comic character since Spider-Man. I’ve spent many pixels talking about Ms. Marvel, and I plan to waste many more.

(Runner-up for Best comic is Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Bitch Planet, a cracking read and a bold feminist statement all in one. Issue 1 is phenomenal, from the grimy art and the graceful sci-fi world-building to the awesome protagonist flip at the end. The only thing holding it back is that there has only been one issue, but that one issue is enough for me to consider a “Non-Compliant” tattoo, so it’s a strong start).

Best book: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Yet more full disclosure: I haven’t finished Americanah yet, both because it is a large book and because its slow pace encourages thoughtful reading. Even partway through it, though, I can see the ways its changed the way I think in small but significant ways. Chimamanda’s small but carefully observed story about a Nigerian woman living in America is beautiful and understated, and told with the kind of specificity that gives it real life. Much like Ms. Marvel, it’s all the more striking because it’s a world that we don’t see represented in pop culture, and it’s had a real impact on the way I think about Nigerian culture. Her descriptions of Lagos, in particular, are the perfect balance of spelled-out detail and assumed knowledge that gives it life even for someone who’s never set foot on the same continent. The talk of Yoruba and Igbo, of language and naming; of the shared-but-separate culture of African immigrants from different nations; nothing could be further removed from my own experience, but Chimamanda has built her world so well that I feel like I know it intimately.

Best TV show: The Legend of Korra

I can’t believe it took me so long as it did to get into Korra. Much like with Sharon Van Etten, I’d liked but not fully clicked with parent series, Avatar: The Last Airbender when I started the Ladyist (though I’d only seen two or three episodes). Finally, circumstances conspired. At a friend’s dog’s birthday party (you heard me), I wandered into an intense conversation that took in martial artistry, Asian history and the commingling of Eastern and Western architecture. I knew enough about Korra then to follow the conversation, but I was staggered to hear the depth and sophistication that had gone into the imagining of this show. To make a cartoon about superpowered people using the classical four elements to fight each other is one thing; to draw on historical conflicts, specific Chinese dynasties and distinct forms of martial arts when you do so is to operate at a whole other level. Korra is nominally a children’s show, but has the care and detail of an epic fantasy. That water-benders (people capable of manipulating water) use movements derived from tai chi is no accident, but a carefully selected pairing between the in-world use of that ability and the principles of that martial art.

All of that detail (which is only a fraction of a hint of the depth which Korra and Avatar have explored) would be nothing if the writing wasn’t strong enough to support it. Thankfully, though, the scripts are as thoughtfully constructed as the world-building. The dialogue is sometimes a little too direct or expository, but the relationships between the characters are as complex and nuanced as you’ll find in premium drama. When a love-triangle emerged between Korra and her two male teammates, I groaned. Aren’t we done with this?, I thought; can’t we have a hero who isn’t defined by her relationships with men? Then, in the next episode, the love triangle had dissolved after Korra, Mako and Bolin talked with each other about their conflicted feelings. I was flabbergasted, and overjoyed to see that the writers could handle such complexity with grace and style. And all this before I point out that most of the cast, including Korra, are people of colour. Not bad for a kids show, eh?

I’m still only in the first of Korra‘s four Books, and I am so excited to dive into the rest.

Seconds before this, she literally burst into the room declaring, “I’M THE AVATAR YOU GOTTA DEAL WITH IT”. Instant love.

Honourable Mentions

Ask the Passengers by A.S. King

Sweet and delicate, this very everyday story is invested with real wonder by Amy’s rich grasp of character. I cared for and identified with Astrid Jones intensely, and the subtlety and love in her story will stay with me for years. Critical reading for any teens who are grappling with their social and sexual identity (i.e. all of them), but just as essential for adults of all stripes.

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

Through The Woods by Emily Carroll

I’ve already talked a bit about this book, but it deserves every bit of attention I and everyone else lavishes on it. The creeping dread of the five short stories in Emily’s debut collection would be enough to mark her out as an incredible talent, but her illustrations seethe dread and nightmare creatures such that it’s impossible to forget Through the Woods. Sometimes that’s less appealing, like the too-still moments in the wee hours that seem to invite thoughts of the body thieves and their jangling teeth, but you can’t deny their power.

Dragon Age: Inquisition

Dragon Age: Inquisition

If I’d done anything more than scraped the surface of Dragon Age: Inquisition, it would’ve no doubt made the proper list. Even 10-12 hours in, though, I’ve only begun to understand what I’ve leapt into. The storytelling is a thing of wonder, as you pick apart the complex political and religious entanglements of Thedas while attempting to close a cataclysmic rift that’s bleeding demons into the countryside. In amidst that, find time to keep your companions happy (maybe romance your favourite) and explore the staggering beauty of the world around you. DA:I gets extra credit on top of that for the attention and care paid to female characters of all levels. Cassandra, Leliana, Josephine and Sera are just a few of the rich, distinctive female characters you’ll meet, with a refreshing variety of skin tones that you don’t often see in fantasy. Not only that, but the incidental characters are roughly balanced on gender, so you’ll see plenty of women just as ready to wield a battleaxe or a bow as you will in an apron or religious cloaks.

Ex Hex — Hex Rips

My only complaint about Hex Rips is the fact that I took so long to hear it. That’s entirely my own fault, though, so learn from my mistake and check it out. Simple, straight-to-the-point garage rock that still manages to sound fresh and exciting, and from Melbourne no less.

Parks and Recreation

If I have to explain why Parks and Rec is the greatest, I think I’ve cultivated the wrong audience.

There are so many other wonderful things I’ve experienced this year that I can’t imagine listing them all: you’d get bored around entry #4996, and I’d no doubt miss something. Have I missed anything essential, either from this list or altogether? Share it in the comments!

Best of the Ladyist (so far)