Righteous Babes & Riot Grrls
This week is International Women’s Week, and we felt like the only proper way to do our part was to do what we always do — celebrate music. Here is a list of albums by some of the most powerful, iconic, influential and fearless women to ever step up to a microphone. These were the kind of women who, with the sheer magnetism of their talent, guaranteed that future generations of women would be inspired to make a glorious noise. From the seething punk screeds of Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill to the flat-voiced, bracing confessionals of Liz Phair and EMA to the joyous, life-affirming racket of The Slits and beyond — these are women whose music stays with us.
Nika Roza Danilova's voice seems biologically-engineered to convey longing. There are different strains of longing, of course: there's romantic longing, hopeful longing, confident longing and even longing that's laced with the faint tang of panic. It's that last one Danilova's is best at: in live performances, she has a tendency to stomp forcefully from one end of the stage to the other, over and over -- a pint-sized Lady Macbeth frantically trying... to self-exorcise. Even when it's unclear what she's singing, the way she sings it is enough to generate shivers.more »
Appropriately, Danilova's voice -- which occasionally seems to imagine Siouxsie Sioux in a High School production of Evita -- has always been the centerpiece of the songs she records as Zola Jesus. In the past, it was beamed through layers of static, like a lighthouse struggling to puncture dense fog. While it often made for arresting listening -- on "Dog" from The Spoils, it sounded as if she were singing while being smothered -- her past full-lengths often felt like they were more about texture than composition. But onConatus, as suggested by the two spectacular EPs Danilova released last year, the songs at last have fully crystallized around her. They're built mostly by stretching blue bands of synth across drum tracks that clatter like dancing skeletons. On "Hikikomori," keyboards flicker on and off like strobe lights, and Danilova sings as if balled up in the fetal position in the corner, her voice (which may or may not be saying "I've got sister in my hands") as pain-wracked as ever. In "Seekir," it soars confidently over the kind of minor-key electropop backdrop that got trotted out in the '80s any time a director needed a soundtrack for a vampire disco.
Which brings up another point: people like to use the g-word when talking about Danilova's music, but there's a level of both manufactured drama and manic overstatement to goth that's wholly absent fromConatus. Danilova's songs instead sound like they're coming from somewhere darker and less precise -- a deep plunge into an icy stream of consciousness. It's impossible to draw a bead on their literal meaning, but there's a kind of sensory meaning that feels both more profound and more affecting. Take "Skin," a quietly devastating ballad that arrives late in the record. The song throbs with a kind of shapeless sadness, its piano accompaniment gradually dissolving from lurching block chords to dizzying, disorienting arpeggios. The lyrics can be parsed only in brief flashes -- "In the sickness, you find me," and "In this hole I've fallen down" -- but their combined impact is wrenching. Like much of Conatus, the song drifts by like a dream; fragmented but vivid, non-linear but deeply unsettling, its effects lingering long after the light begins filtering in.
"I'm a better woman than I have been/ Because I don't think about way back when," Sharon Jones sings at the top of "Better Things," one of the more laidback cuts on her fourth album with the Dap-Kings. Well, sure: The band behind her takes care of that. The Dap-Kings were founded as a monument to both James Brown hardness and Tina Turner/Aretha Franklin vocal forthrightness. But each album has been more... velvety than the last, and on I Learned the Hard Way they work in strings ("Give It Back") and vibraphone (the instrumental "The Reason") without a hitch, and slow the tempo down throughout without losing any funk power. But while the aural clock is dead set on 1970 or so (and if Fleet Foxes can evoke CSNY crossed with Pet Sounds, why not?), the band still sounds like they're progressing: Jones still belts plenty, but tunes like "Window Shopping" demand more restraint, and she delivers. Besides, some things are simply timeless. "Money — where have you gone to?" Jones sings on one chorus. "Money — where are you hiding?" Who says these guys aren't living in 2010?more »
What made Nina Simone's racially self-identified "protest" music so compelling was its blend of passion and craft. You bet songs like "Mississippi Goddamn" and "Old Jim Crow," were angry: they were written at the height of the Civil Rights tumult, when "Negroes" were being hosed, hung, beaten and blown up, and Simone didn't wait for the scales of justice or the judgment of history (or her own tactful restraint) to tilt in... her favor before weighing in. That said, those and most of Simone's other angry political songs are celebratory in nature, glorifying in the idea that it's better to vent than silently acquiesce.more »
While the singer-pianist was indeed adept at pushing the hot button, the best material here is not angry but anguished. "Four Women" is a theatrical production melodramatically distilled to 4:09, a brilliant piece of work. The palpable sorrow of "Nobody" reminds us that poverty and loneliness are exacerbated by discrimination. And Simone's version of "Strange Fruit" is superior to Billie Holiday's definitive version (a claim I don't make lightly), with its spellbinding, plummeting, extended note at its climax that is harrowing and beautiful all over again each time you hear it.
It's a great idea to include interview snippets with Simone prefacing most every song. Many of the interview questions are inane and Simone's answers are hardly airtight — she's an artist, not a political theorist. But they cinch together material drawn from different sources, and provide another layer of intimacy to help us regard this splendid, still-underrated performer who personified what it means to be uncompromising in one's beliefs.
Even in 1977, British punk's Year Zero for outsiders and the dispossessed, Marian Joan Elliott-Said — aka Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex — stood out among all the gob-encrusted white males. A mixed-race girl of British-Somali heritage who appeared on Top of the Pops in braces, she lived a mixed history as both a "barefoot hippy" and a recipient of psychiatric care. Post-punk, she threw herself into Hare Krishna and New Age,... but on this second solo album (her first since 1980) she grapples with a real world that unexpectedly resembles X-Ray Spex's formative years: Everyone hates the government, nobody's got a job and the kids want to riot.more »
Instead of revisiting punk's D.I.Y. DNA, she hooks up with producer Youth to bring together electro, dance-pop, garage rock and protest-ska (stand by for the first sighting of a trombone in pop since 2Tone's heyday). She often sounds like M.I.A.'s older sister: "L.U.V." is a punk chug plus disco-style octave bassline, "I Luv UR Sneakers" sounds tailor-made for the fluorescent germ-free adolescents that X-Ray Spex immortalized, and "Ghoulish" summons the same misty dreamscape as "I'm In Love With A German Film Star."
The album is full of zest and righteous anger, if not subtlety. The punks were unafraid to call a Babylonian downpressor by his rightful name, and Poly carries on in that time-tested vein here. If you're accustomed to reading the tea leaves of Thom Yorke's lyrics for meaning, you might find much of Generation Indigo naive or strident in its assaults on such counterculture folk devils as consumerism, societal disconnection, war, toxic waste and general bad vibes. But who comes to musicians for practical solutions? The point of records like this is not to solve your problems but to inspire you to solve them for yourselves. In that respect, this energy-packed, optimistic, day-glo rabble-rouser is just right for the times.
New Age Steppers
This was the final project of the endlessly energetic post-punk sprite Ari Up, whose name couldn't have been more evocative of her spirit. She was someone who was relentlessly, joyfully positive, and listening to her music was like being strapped into a brightly colored car traveling much too fast. She died soon after this record was completed, but this is not an album for mourning; it is an album for dancing.
Like many of us, Erika M. Anderson escaped her early 20s alive, but just barely. The harrowing and spectacular Past Life Martyred Saints, which she recorded under the name EMA, is her recollection of the years spent in that post-collegiate daze of faux-grandiosity and encroaching panic that amounts to a Petri dish for terrible life decisions. Anderson takes rueful, angry stock of several such decisions over the course of the album's nine... songs. As such, it falls into a rich rock 'n' roll tradition: the Bohemian Squalor Survival Report.more »
Like the Liz Phair of Exile In Guyville or the Elliott Smith of Either/Or, Anderson comes to us sounding as if she had dragged herself, gasping and on bloodied elbows, away from the big city — in her case, L.A. — that nearly blotted out her soul. She sings with Phair's flat tone and scorched-earth honesty, and Smith's quietly trembling rage, over messy blobs of electric guitar and wispy implications of drums. She hints at body mortification on "Marked" ("My arms, they are see-through plastic/ They are secret bloodless skinless mass"), and then snarls it outright on "Butterfly Knife": "You were a goth in high school/ You've gone and fucked your arms up/ You always talked about it/ They thought you'd never do it." Anderson has a bone-chilling gift for crystallizing her song's messages into one indelible phrase and burying them at the base of your brain. On "Butterfly Knife," she coos, "20 kisses with a butterfly knife." On "Marked," she moans, frighteningly, "I wish that every time he touched me left a mark."
Past Life Martyred Saints isn't just a gothic house of horrors, however. Anderson can be incisively funny: The immortal opening couplet "Fuck California/ You made me boring" belongs in the great rock pantheon of SoCal kiss-offs. There are moments of furtive sweetness, too: "If this time through/ We don't get it right/ I'll come back to you/ In another life" goes the nursery-rhyme chorus of "Anteroom." The record is bathed in warm echo, making it perversely comforting to bask, or wallow in. It uncannily resembles the headspace Anderson depicts — a life period both devoid of and fraught with meaning, somehow simultaneously aimless and volatile. And one that continues to inspire enduring works of art.
Record collectors tend to be men; so do record-collector musicians, the kind who own original pressings of the rarities they cover. London's Holly Golightly is that kind of rare bird, a whiskey sour-voiced ex-Headcoatee who likes tempos that drag and guitars that do the same. Formally, a lot of the songs on this 2001 collection are blues, and she's got the right kind of "oh yeah?" temperament to sing 'em; ditto... her rambunctious take on Pavement's "Box Elder." Pick to click: "Believe Me #2," where the guitars snarl even harder than the singer.more »
For a few months in 1978, the Slits had the future of rock within their grasp. Harnessing their roughly hewn skills to a musical vision signposted by Zappa and Beefheart, their spring session for John Peel's radio show seemed destined to land them that elusive record deal. It didn't. The band — four fabulous, feisty women — looked and sounded completely untamable, and by the time Island picked them up a year... later, they'd given their old material a dub-wise makeover. This collection falls either side of the glory months. The first half, taped at Dingwalls in September 1977, finds them magnificently mired in ramshackle punk mode. Though virtually fully formed, "New Town" still falls apart. The final songs post-date the classic Cut album, by which time the dubby arrangements had been significantly funked up — in part thanks to the band's association with the Pop Group. The version of John Holt's "Man Next Door" still knocks the Clash's "Police And Thieves" into a dark corner, though.more »
In 1991 — at least five years before the first blog was identified as such — Oberlin art history grad Liz Phair quietly sent around a series of home-recorded cassettes she'd made under the moniker Girly Sound. The recordings were crudely rendered, rudely conceived (covering such post-feminist subjects as "Black Market White Baby Dealers" and "Willie the Six-Dicked Pimp") and immediately caught the ear of alt-nation's underground cognoscenti, who recognized an art-damaged... rebel without a cause when they heard one. Those recordings quickly went down in rock history as one of the finest albums of its era, maybe even of all time: she released 1993's Exile in Guyville, which for all intents and purposes reads today as an eighteen-track, album-length blog, replete with all the technologically-enabled oversharing and snarktastic, hit-and-run gender politics this description implies.more »
Phair was living at home with her parents in Winnetka, Illinois (suburbia being the best locale from which to wage war on an unsuspecting, male-dominated rock hierarchy) when she began re-recording some of her early Girly Sound demos with producer Brad Wood. What took shape was originally touted as a song-by-song response to Pussy Galore's noisy assassination of the Rolling Stones classic Exile on Main Street — a claim that no longer seems plausible (is "Girls! Girls! Girls!" really Phair's answer to "Turd on the Run?"); the record helped paint her as something of a pop-culture pirate princess from the get-go. The album quickly established its no-holds-barred M.O. with "Glory," an ode to cunnilingus ostensibly meant to "empower" but equally intended to shock, to determine which people were paying attention (and most certainly, the little girls understood, championing Phair as their tough-talking older sister almost immediately). This was followed in rapid succession by rough-and-ready autobiography that portrayed Phair as little but "a cunt in spring, you can rent me by the hour" ("Dance of the Seven Veils"), a scheming pleasure addict who "jumps when you circle the cherry" ("Canary"), a commitment-phobic tramp who secretly wishes for a boyfriend who "makes love 'cuz he's in it... and all that stupid old shit" ("Fuck and Run"), employs devastatingly personal self-critique ("How sleazy it is, messing with these guys") on "Shatter" and showcases her signature Girly Sound tune "Flower," a multi-Liz madrigal promising some anonymous indie rock dude she'll be his "blowjob queen" and "fuck you and your minions too" (unfortunately changing the "and your girlfriend too" lyric from her original tapes). All of this devastation was delivered in a voice so deadpan and emotion-free it was described by Rob Sheffield as "Peppermint Patty on a bad caffeine jag" and came across like the alt-nation's musical answer to another Liz, Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel, whose self-skewering pseudo-confessional narratives also oddly prefigured the stylistic norms of the blogosphere by a number of years.
How an album so prescient and influential — one can argue that Alanis Morrissette owes the entirety of her career to the firewalk first traveled on Guyville — ever disappeared from Matador's catalog is beyond me, particularly when you consider that in this post-digital, file-sharing age, nothing should ever truly go "out of print." But the album's re-release, while not offering anything particularly revealing in the way of extras save for Phair's interpolation of "Wild Thing" as something of a Mean Girls rewrite, does underscore its importance by stripping away the pretend-porn veneer that originally defined it and revealing the core of what it was, is, and always shall remain: the document of a generation of women in transition, preparing the way for what the New York Times recently described as the lingua franca of the internet, a dialogue that, by turn, has emerged as "smart yet conversational, funny in a merciless way, righteously indignant but comically defeated, where every man [cheats] on his partner and all the women are slutty." Welcome, boys and grrls, to the 21st Century.
"I've got red scabby hands and purple scabby feet/ and you can smell me coming from halfway down the street." Not the first impression most artists would dare to make, but Ani DiFranco never has been much for convention. That couplet from "Life Boat," the opening track on Which Side Are You On?, discomforts from the outset, which is just how Ani would have it. The title track further cements that tone,... borrowing its framework from the 1930s political folk song made famous by Pete Seeger and others; DiFranco has rewritten its lyrics en masse, attacking everything from Reaganomics to rampant consumerism to corporate corruption. She's more interesting when she's less didactic, as on "Promiscuity," an engagingly funky number that suggests, "Promiscuity is research and development, evolution begs embellishment." Musically, DiFranco is all over the map, from jazzy explorations to Latin rhythms to dynamic pop hybrids. Rare is the moment where she slips into simple singer-songwriter mode, but it's brilliant when she does: "Hearse" may be the most poignant love song she's ever written, summarized in the promise, "I will follow you into the next life, like a dog chasing after a hearse." One might pine for more such simple sentiment on this sprawling canvas, but after making music for 23 years and as many albums, DiFranco seems focused foremost on her own artistic visions. As she puts it bluntly on "If Yr Not," amid angular riffs and tribal rhythms: "If you're not getting happier as you get older, then you're fucking up."more »
If she sang in English, Oumou Sangare would likely be mentioned in the same breath as artists such as Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, vocalists who not only fashioned a unique manner of putting across in a song but directly and poignantly addressed the lives and struggles of women in their music. Sangare, arguably Mali's greatest female vocalist, writes all of her own material, and Seya features some of her strongest to... date. From the opening track, the hypnotically beat-crazy "Sounsoumba," it becomes apparent that Sangare -- two decades after her debut, Moussolou -- has matured into a master of dynamics and emotion. Delivering her words forcefully, riding the rhythm, her backup vocalists responding dutifully, she suddenly turns up the heat three-quarters of the way in, goaded by a jazzy flute that explores the nuances of the melody. Courtesy of the translation in the booklet, we learn that Sangare is making the case here for harmonious living among the sexes -- while simultaneously imploring the listener to get up and dance. The pattern continues, each new tune forging its own identity while reiterating the singer's pleas for unity and understanding and a better life for all. "Wele Wele Wintou," which utilizes both Western instrumentation and native African instruments like the n'goni to create its ambience, may seem jubilant and danceable on the surface, but beneath lies an urgent call against the forced marriages so common in Sangare's culture. And the seductively cool, relatively minimalist "Mogo Kele" forgoes most percussion and relies on the local sounds of the balafon, calabash, and again, the n'goni, to provide a tranquil base over which Sangare relates her advice to make the most of one's time in this world. Sangare and producer Nick Gold employ the talents of dozens of musicians and vocalists to flesh out their ideas, but Seya never feels cluttered or less than intimate. And, even if one hasn't followed the English translations to understand what Sangare sings, it always feels important.more »
The road to hell is littered with the battered souls of actors who've tried to forge careers as musicians. But Mali's Fatoumata Diawara managed to leap genres with grace and invention. And she's achieved it while being that rarest of things in African music — a woman who writes her own material and accompanies herself on guitar.more »
Her compositions are remarkably mature for a debut, moving from the uptempo to the... gently intimate with easy smoothness, although she seems at her best when the pace slows, as it does with "Makoun Oumou." An ode to her former employer, Wassoulou singer Oumou Sangaré (Diawara was her backing vocalist for a while), the song is deliciously spare — almost naked — with little more than guitar and percussion behind her voice, and the native kamelengoni harp peeking out in short runs. Built around an achingly catchy chorus, the song slowly builds in intensity until it achieves beautiful release close to the end. Like everything here, the song is a showcase for her singing, and it's that voice, a lulling, persuasive instrument, full of sensuality, that seduces the ear, whether Diawara is sounding beautifully ethereal ("Wililé"), built up in pillowed layers of vocals ("Alama"), or giving that raw African blues rein on "Kèlè."
Diawara wears her African roots proudly, but she's definitely not a purist. Mali is the foundation of the sound, but touches of electric piano sneak in on "Kanou," while jazzy electric guitar adds texture to "Bakonoba" and "Boloko," where it duels with n'goni on the disc's only real instrumental moment — something that simply serves to accent the predominance of the vocals. With her first step as a solo artist, Fatoumata Diawara has taken a giant leap indeed.
Back in 2007, on the strength of just one single, the British music press was hailing Liz Green as a talent to watch. It was the kind of endorsement most artists would kill to have. But rather than embrace the hype, Green pressed the pause button, letting her music develop at its own pace, far from the public spotlight. As the mesmerising material on O, Devotion! shows, she made the right decision.more »
"Gallows"... is as scary and bleak a piece as you're ever likely to hear - just voice and guitar, building its quiet intensity until a surprising nursery rhyme quote shatters the tension like someone dropping a glass, and then the song returns to its original rhythm. It's gorgeously, darkly creepy. It's blues, but not in any conventional sense. Instead, there's a shadowy, disturbing sense of sorrow that underpins everything, accented by the splinters of New Orleans horns that float like ghosts around the back of tracks like "Luis" and "Hey Joe" (not that one) and Green's deliberately expressionless tone, a voice that seems to come from somewhere out of time and ups the fear factor of it all. Even her promise of "a whole lot of fun tonight" is tinged with menace.
She revisits "Bad Medicine" and "French Singer," the single that so excited critics four years ago. The first track is an eerie, spooky meditation played out against the counterpoint of a Dixieland band, the latter a piece beamed in from some ghostly 4 a.m. cabaret on a voyage of the damned and curiously beautiful in its understatement. Like the rest of the disc, they're songs that take you to another place, somewhere restive and often uncomfortable; but once caught there, it's impossible to leave.
The darling of the English folk scene follows up her 2010 effort Make the Light with this, her second album of Christmas-inspired songs. Universally-known hymns sit alongside other carols and songs peculiar to her native Yorkshire, all of them presented in Rusby's acclaimed lush acoustic style and graceful, gorgeous voice., Rovi
Based around the keening, dramatically interwoven harmonies of sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank, spectral British folk band the Unthanks won a Mercury Music Prize nomination for their 2007 debut The Bairns (recorded under their previous moniker of Rachel Unthank and the Winterset) and have since enchanted and enthralled an ever-widening fan base. They have never been shy of voyaging beyond the traditional folk canon, having sung songs by artists as various as... Tom Waits and King Crimson, and in December 2010 played two evenings of covers of Robert Wyatt and Antony & the Johnsons at London's Union Chapel, releasing this live souvenir of the concerts a year later.more »
Tackling two venerated cult artists could be seen as an audacious undertaking but it works magnificently because all three artists share a mercurial, maverick sensibility. Rachel and Becky locate the stark, queasy ethereality at the tender heart of Antony's "Bird Gerhl" while their sibling status lends fortuitous new levels of interpretation to "You Are My Sister." They forge a different connection entirely with the quirky, politicised Wyatt, and his trumpet-driven anthem for Palestine, "Dondestan," and the monumentally yearning "Sea Song" are memorable highlights of this idiosyncratic yet hugely vital album. The Unthanks promise further, equally unpredictable installments in this new Diversions series: They will be eagerly awaited.
For Leila, music-making has always been a small and private playground, but for her fourth outing, she sought to expand her sound and fully overcome the dark feelings that had festered since her parents' passing. To that end, she entered into an intense collaboration with Matthew Simms, aka Mt. Sims, the Berlin-based polymath, whose track record in left-turning from funky synth-pop (2002s Ultrasex) into macabre post-punk (2005s Wild Light) obviously tickled her... ever-lively contrariness gland. The resultant U&I album, featuring Simms's voice on six tracks, is experimental, occasionally hard-hitting, sometimes exquisitely beautiful, but throughout fabulously uplifting.more »
As an actress, Charlotte Gainsbourg has remoulded herself with startling ease, slipping into the skin of stoic mothers, wistful lovers and violently troubled misogynists. As a singer, she parlays this shape-shifting into atmospheric adult pop. Stage Whisper, a collection of live recordings and unreleased studio tracks, gives her costumes ranging from glittery electro-glam to slinking funk, folk, lounge and the utopian chorales beloved of former collaborators and countrymen Air.more »
Gainsbourg's versatility... as a vocalist is underrated; she invests all of these styles with remarkably different personalities. On the first disc, she conjures the doleful purity of the late Trish Keenan on "White Telephone," while "Terrible Angels" has the snotty atonality of M.I.A., and on "Out Of Touch" she's closer to the girlishness of Francoise Hardy. And just as Bjork has lately developed a weird mid-Atlantic cockney accent, Gainsbourg wanders into strange Anglicised vowels which lend spots of vivid color to the likes of "Got To Let Go." The latter was written by and features Charlie Fink of Noah and the Whale, and there are also collaborations with Connan Mockasin, Villagers and Beck, who produces the record with plenty of space and order.
The second disc, recorded at a concert of material from her first two records, showcases this versatility in real-time. On "IRM," portentous chanting grazes against squalls of guitar noise, but her cover of Dylan's "Just Like A Woman" is all languor and sighs. Her voice switches into a compellingly nasal and androgynous cadence at times, recalling Clinic's vindictive moments, and the eerie ennui of the Jarvis Cocker-penned "AF607105" is masterfully rendered.
These songs might seem lightweight on first listen, but there's a creepy opacity amid the strummed guitars and twinkling effects. Gainsbourg's chameleonic voice hints at unsolved riddles, and that mystery hangs around long after the records have stopped playing.
The successful self-titled reissue of Fame-era material released in early 2004 allowed Candi Staton to make this, her first secular album in several years. Where 1999's Outside In was a way to take advantage of her unplanned return to the clubs -- a couple singles released during the '90s used a vocal she recorded for a documentary about a man's struggle with life-threatening obesity -- His Hands is 100 percent Southern soul.... Staton involves several family members and longtime associates, including son Marcus Williams (a seasoned drummer who has played with her for years), daughter Cassandra Hightower, sister Maggie Staton Peebles, and Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section organist Barry Beckett. It might be surprising to see that Lambchop's Mark Nevers produced the session, and that Lambchop ally Lloyd Barry arranged the horns, but both men have done extensive work with Staton's peers in the gospel world. Though seven of the 11 songs are provided by others (Merle Haggard, Red Simpson, Bert Berns, Will Oldham), Staton uses almost all of the album to work through the pain caused by her brutal past relationships, some of which came and went as she was churning out gospel material. Something like this has evidently been a long time coming. Going by her performances, she's possibly more familiar with the emotions running through the likes of "When Hearts Grow Cold" and "You Never Really Wanted Me" than the songwriters, and her voice remains a rich and powerful instrument -- it's amazing how little her voice has changed through nearly four decades. Even when the arrangements come too close to resembling slight facsimiles of classic Southern soul (which isn't too frequently), Staton's heartache is enough to cut through your soul. This is a very good album, and knowing that Staton seems to have cleared a glorious path through her dependencies and abusive relationships makes it all the more sweet.more »
Don't be shocked if the statement-of-purpose title track of Dolly Parton's Backwoods Barbie winds up an instant karaoke classic for drag queens who opt to hear "backwoods" as "backwards." We shouldn't judge her by all her hair and makeup, Dolly tells us, because "the way I look is just a county gal's idea of glam."more »
That's only the best joke on this impressively well-crafted collection, a self-released free-agent move billed as the ageless... icon's first pop-country album in ages. Second best joke, maybe: "I'm not the Dalai Lama" (get it?) as part of a positive-mental-attitude lesson for overweight and/or underpaid girlfriends. The Fine Young Cannibals cover, unabashedly new-wave-synthed until its hoedown finale, is cute too. As is the punchline of Dolly's joyfully un-obscene back-atcha to a conceited Mr. Big Stuff who "don't know love from Shinola": "you'll be [beep!] out of luck."
Dolly's "Tracks of My Tears" rivals Ronstadt's if not Robinson's, and her "pop-country" here is mostly the stuff of '70s d-i-v-o-r-c-e laments, from the brittle tearjerker "Made of Stone" to songs connecting fragrant flowers and fragrant makeup with breakups. There's also relaxed jazz-piano Western Swing, an artsily psychedelic thrum undulating between Appalachia and the Middle East and uplifting gospel-pop about keeping your feet on the ground. And towering over it all, there's Dolly — still sweeter than rock candy and larger than life, after all these years.
When the legendary Portland-based trio Sleater-Kinney announced their indefinite hiatus in 2006 to widespread dismay, there was no official explanation as to why. One had to suspect, however, that it wasn't because guitarist Carrie Brownstein, frontwoman Corin Tucker and drummer Janet Weiss felt burned out, but rather for deeper, more complex reasons. In 2010, the tantalizing news surfaced that Janet and Carrie were re-grouping as Wild Flag with Helium's Mary Timony on... guitar and vocals and The Minders' Rebecca Cole on keyboards. For months, there were no recordings, making live videos a valuable commodity. When they began to surface, they proved that not only did that old authentic urgency remain, it was the crux of the new band.more »
The group's debut is underpinned by a do-or-die urgency and an existentialist drive which sets its scene in the most feral of arenas: the rock club. Opener "Romance" is all about the transcendence of song and movement, how "we dance to free ourselves from the room," how "we've got an eye, an eye for what's romance/ we've got our eyes, our eyes trained on you" - a sly nod to their heritage, but one that's tempting you into their future, too. It's an irresistible allure - Cole's keyboards are squelchy and coy, and Brownstein and Timony zoom from nose to tail of their frets. It sounds immediately classic, already iconic, but fresh as well, and it makes you realise how long it's been since there's been a truly vital guitar band. Chris Woodhouse's production is barely there, giving the record a carnal, live feel; even when the four indulge in one of their more psychedelic wig-outs, every element feels essential. The end of "Glass Tambourine" finds them spiralling off in all different directions: Weiss the spitting motor, Cole a Krautrock dream, and Brownstein and Timony marveling at the cosmos.
The penultimate track, the lurching, squawking "Racehorse," is a distillation of the fundamentals that Wild Flag set down in the face of dilly-dallying dilettantes and non-believers: "Where are you going?/ What do you own?/ What are you selling?/ Who do you know?" they goad amid spirited bursts of winding guitar and Cole audibly battering the keys. It's the final challenge in Wild Flag's wondrous initiation ritual, one that urges you to set aside baggage and bullshit for the crux of Brownstein's flaming, gravel-voiced home slamdown: "What you don't know is me," she roars with a mixture of fury and pride. The underlying message is not one of defeat, but a reaffirmation of the need for identity and principles if you're to be better than average, acknowledging musicians and humans' propensity for transformation. When it comes to Wild Flag, theirs is an incarnation that we want to hang on to for as long as they'll let us. Their debut is incendiary, an epiphany-inducing thing.
Sleater-Kinney formed in Olympia, Washington, a two-hour Amtrak trip away, but by 2001 all three members were living in Portland, Oregon. "Light-Rail Coyote" is their impassioned love song to the city: the "dirty river" is the Willamette, which cuts through the center of town, "Burnside" is the street that divides the north and south sides of the city, and the "light-rail MAX" is part of the public transportation system we're inordinately proud... of. The rest of the album is pretty amazing, too — politically charged (see the title track and "Combat Rock"), sinewy, agile rock & roll built around the twining dialogue between Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein's voices and guitars.more »
If soulful-everywoman Brits can get over big-time inAmericaby speaking tough and plain, as everyone from Amy to Adele has demonstrated, why can't an MC go the same route? Maybe because American hip-hop has become a cartoon kingdom, especially with women involved - Nicki Minaj has seen to that. It's probably more apt to see late-20s London native Corynne Elliot, aka Speech Debelle, as closer in spirit to someone like Rhymesayers artist Dessa,... indie by default if not principle - or even Mary or Jill's down-home advice. The same goes for Debelle, who gets points for her knowing moniker - she can be preachy. "I live for the message," she brags over jazzy horns, and she can be awkward delivering it, as on "X Marks the Spot," with its clunky chorus ("You can never be/ We can never be/ It's plain to see/ That you're not over your ex").more »
But unlike some speechmakers, above it all she's not. "I gave up sure for unsure - never do that," she reminds herself over and over again on "Shawshank" over a soft ghost-town skank and bubbly piano. The sonorous strings and smoky-atmospheric haze on the drums of "Elephant" couch some a chorus just as direct: "I can't do this any longer/ I'm tired/ And if I stay here any longer/ I'll be a liar." She'll keep going, though. Resilience is her subject.