We’re a week into my favorite month of the year. In Austin, we’re finally getting some semblance of autumn weather. We’re also in the midst of a season where lots of new music gets released. Thus, it seems time to celebrate some music that represents that idyllic time when the air turns crisp and cool and brittle burnt orange leaves gather with shades of ocher and rust and juxtapose with a sky that’s the complimentary shade of a robin’s egg. The Sea and Cake and Van Dyke Parks are two seasonal favorites. Everything on Tavi Gevinson’s witchy music mix would apply. The new one from Mike Watt, Nels Cline, Yuka Honda, and Dougie Brown is sure to make it into rotation. Here are some blog-appropriate selections. Yours are welcome too.
Few acts provide better aural companionship for scarf weather better than Stereolab, an opinion I’m proud to share with media scholar and Twitter acquaintance Derek Kompare. If fall represents, among other things, returning to academic pursuits, than this band make intellectual rigor look easy, obscuring the cross-outs, highlighter stains, and eraser skids that suggest the educational process as surely as they bury their socialist politics under analog kitsch.
Twee gets a bad rap with detractors often missing the politicized amateurishness, irony, and resistance surrounding all the saccharine. Heavenly suggest its irresistible qualities while Thee Headcoatees gleefully bring the subtextual smut to the surface.
Don’t let the college radio staples fool you. Jean Grae is the smartest person in the room.
Singer-songwriter Judee Sill recently got a critical renaissance after decades of obscurity. Her elegant introspection is perfect for solitary walks at dusk and makes the case for why we should listen and remember her.
I’ve been listening to Georgia Anne Muldrow on a consistent basis since spring. I may as well extend it into another season.
Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval and My Bloody Valentine’s Colm Ó Cíosóig capture the season’s hazy qualities.
Austin’s own Soft Healer make music that’s perfect for getting lost in the woods. I was at this show, to the right of the camera.
Magik Markers ramp up the dread when those woods turn ominous and the nocturnal temperature drops.
Sharon Von Etten’s assured vocals will guide you out of the woods. Sandy Denny’s crystalline voice is the clear sky above it all.
Slumberland’s once-forgotten Black Tambourine reminds you that winter’s long dark nights are just around the corner. By that point, I’ll be cozying up to Wooden Shjips and Christmas albums from James Brown and Ze Records. I’ll also be sipping cocoa while revisiting icy offerings from Tim Hecker and Fever Ray, as well as El Guincho’s Pop Negro and Q-Tip’s The Renaissance.
Last week, I did a quick round-up of some new releases I’ve enjoyed. In that post, I mentioned that upon occasion friends and acquaintances familiar with my blog will ask what I’m listening to. When they ask this question, the tacit assumption I make is that they want to discuss current recording artists. There’s always a few up-and-comers I champion, but any time someone asks “who are you listening to” it’s usually an older act I’m investigating. This year, if you asked “what are you listening to” my answer is “the Cocteau Twins.”
At this point, it’s hardly incendiary to proclaim oneself a fan of the long-defunct Scottish dream pop act. For one, there’s not much to hate. It seems detractors profess indifference rather than contempt, deeming their music pleasant but inconsequential. The worst insult I’ve heard was that there’s little difference between their sound and the pan-global efforts of 4AD labelmates Dead Can Dance and new age artists like Enya and Enigma. These artists sound good as background noise at a bougie dinner party. Pass the quinoa.
Though their releases always clutter discount bins — no doubt jewels from the reject piles of former high school goth kids’ CD collections — contemporary acts like M83, Warpaint, Phantogram, School of Seven Bells, Sleep Over, and even Linkin Park cite their influence. While folks like Madonna and David Lynch noted their interest in the band early on, it’s only recently become “fashionable” to like them. In 2005, there was unsubstantiated talk of a reunion at Coachella. In 2008, the band received a Q Award for their contributions to popular music, a rare accolade Fraser noted for an otherwise undecorated band.
In the past few years, I’ve entered into more conversations with people who like them, along with the work band members vocalist Elizabeth Fraser, guitarist-producer Robin Guthrie, and bassist Simon Raymonde did with This Mortal Coil, especially Fraser and Guthrie’s contributions on It’ll End in Tears. Like M83’s Anthony Gonzalez, a lot of us are in are 20s and too young to directly experience the group’s 80s heyday. So I’m going to guess many of us came to our fandom through other portals, perhaps exploring the reference Patton Oswalt makes in his bit about KFC bowls in Werewolves in Lollipops or listening to the haunting score Guthrie and composer Harold Budd created for Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin.
I first remember hearing Cocteau Twins on the radio in 1994. The song I heard was “Bluebeard,” the lead single to their penultimate album Four Calendar Café. I liked it fine and noticed they already enjoyed a long career. I suspected Sarah McLachlan might be a fan based on songs like “Fear” and “Vox,” the latter of which was originally released on her 1988 debut Touch but received some airplay following the success of Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. I seem to recall that she opened for the band at some point during this time, but can’t confirm this.
In 1998, I remember hearing Fraser on Massive Attack’s “Teardrop,” which may be where many fans in my peer group first heard her. The song is still mesmerizing to me and continues to appeal to others. House incorporated the song as its theme, though regrettably without Fraser’s vocals. Friday Night Lights used José González’s cover this season to underscore a heartbreaking scene where Matt Saracen learns of an unexpected death in his family. I later found out that Fraser was recording the song when she heard that her one-time confidant Jeff Buckley drowned. Fraser considered the song as something of a tribute.
During graduate school, I read Simon Reynolds and Joy Press’s nebulous The Sex Revolts, wherein Fraser’s opaque vocals were linked the womb and the abject. As with much of that book, I wished the authors limited their focus to something less amoebic than gender fuckery in popular music and didn’t crutch so heavily on Gilles Deleuze to support their claims.
I highlight these points to emphasize that the Cocteau Twins were in my periphery for some time, but only recently a band I claimed for my own. I knew of them, but felt their catalog and devoted fan base to be rather intimidating. I started actively listening to them in winter 2008, primarily because Bat for Lashes, Gang Gang Dance, and M83’s “80s album” garnered comparisons. I liked what I heard (I went with 1984’s Treasure as a starting point), but then went about my business. But earlier this year, I reinvigorated a long-dormant obsession with Jeff Buckley. Out of feminist disdain for having a male musician occupy my mind, I turned toward the female musicians in his life. I listened a bit to Rebecca Moore and Joan Wasser’s work, but the Cocteau Twins left a more immediate impression. I dove back into Treasure and went deeper into Blue Bell Knoll, Head Over Heels, Aikea-Guinea, Love’s Easy Tears, Victorialand, and Heaven or Las Vegas. I’m still “in it” and see no reason why you shouldn’t be plunging the leagues with me.
Like many, I was taken by Fraser’s voice. A lover of Björk, Kate Bush, and Siouxsie Sioux, who Fraser recalls in her lower register, I champion beautifully strange female voices. Fraser’s dramatic style is often dialogued with her lyrics, which are usually inscrutable and laced with references to obscure words, gibberish, and slang endemic to the band’s origins (i.e.: “aikea-guinea” is a Scottish term for “seashell”). Though seemingly nonsensical, many fans embue meaning in their attempts to decode what Fraser is singing. But I concur with Jason Ankeny that what makes Fraser’s mouth music resonate with listeners is her emphasis on “the subjective sounds and textures of verbalized emotions.”
This speaks to Fraser’s ability to subvert language, project strength, and demonstrate control, qualities for which I don’t think she gets enough credit. Critics pay particular attention toward her voice’s beauty. Indeed, Fraser possesses an opera singer’s virtuosity, chewing on words’ dexterity, skipping through complex rhythms, and leaping octaves and strange intervals. But her work tends to be described as “ephemeral,” “ethereal”, or “gossamer” to ultimately argue its frillery as being conventionally feminine. But I think there’s something to be said for a woman who writes indeciferable lyrics to songs with names like “Cico Buff,” “Sugar Hiccup,” and “Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires” and taps wells of emotion using these words. It could be profoundly embarrassing for both the singer and the listener, but Fraser finds the pith surrounding emotions’ ultimate intangibility.
But as this year for me is also defined by picking up a guitar, Guthrie’s contributions cannot be overstated. Fraser created a vocal style a host of UK female artists would come to emulate. Similarly, Guthrie rivals few beyond The Smiths’ Johnny Marr in the cultivation of a distinct guitar sound for its time that many would later attempt to replicate. This is evident in how younger artists on 4AD like Lush called upon Guthrie to produce their albums, no doubt aware of and indebted to the Twins’ involvement in forging a distinct pop sensibility for the label. I think it’s also noticable in Kevin Shields’ work. While some like to suggest My Bloody Valentine’s blissful, feedback-laden guitar drone and androgynous vocals were created in a vacuum, I suspect the band took notes on the Twins composing and recording processes.
Guthrie’s guitar sound also speaks to me directly. As a guitar player, I have little interest in the monster riff foolwangery many nurture when they pick up a Fender Stratocaster in the hopes of becoming Stevie Ray Vaughn. Instead, I like how the guitar can be used to conjure atmosphere and mood, however fleeting or mutable. Like Guthrie, I’m also a fan of seventh chords, which destabilize the triad and create a sense of irresolution. Thus this music tends to shift expectations of how it’s supposed to sound, requiring listeners to pay attention in order to process superficially beautiful but compositionally complex music. I suppose this sense of mastery ultimately puts Guthrie in the position of guitar god, though his indifference toward conventional melody and reliance on Fraser’s voice, Raymonde’s sleepy bass, and an omnipresent Roland 808 potentially shift expectations of the band’s sound and his role in helping create it.
We could dwell on Fraser and Guthrie’s former relationship, the daughter they share, his former dependence on heroin and alcohol, the couple’s estrangement, and the band’s disintegration. I’m not especially interested in it, however. But like many UK post-punk acts, I am fascinated in how the band developed such a dreamy sound out of their surroundings. In the documentary Made in Sheffield, Human League frontman Phil Oakey talked about his band’s desire to break away from the tedium of work with the hope of maybe making it onto the Top of the Pops.
I’ve never been to Grangemouth, but I’d anticipate its distinction of housing a large petrochemical plant speaks to post-war industrialism and the assumption that its citizenry would work at the factories and refineries. A trio of spotty kids opting to spin gorgeous, incoherent post-punk inside a basement with their eyes toward heaven? I think it’s worth remembering.
Let’s start this post with a bit of name-dropping, since the subject of this entry is a master of the form. When I interviewed Jessica Hopper during GRCA’s SXSW day show, I asked her who she wanted to see. The answer that stuck in my mind was Hole.
For one, her sentiments echoed other folks I spoke with during the festival, including members of Girl in a Coma and Jessalyn at Brazen Beauties, who identified front woman Courtney Love as a musical influence and feminist role model. For another, Hopper’s reason was interesting. She talked about how Love remains one of the few women in rock who is as challenging and uncompromising as some of our dynamic male rock icons. Given the performer’s age and resilience, her trademark queasy combination of feminine excess and supposedly unladylike rage still enthralls many fans. It’s why many of us watched her recent episode of Behind the Music.
I’ll admit that Hole was not on my must-see list during last spring’s festival. This is largely to do with the fact that I tend to avoid most band reunions. I didn’t see The Stooges or My Bloody Valentine when they came through Austin, and I’m not especially interested in seeing Pavement this fall. It’s not that I don’t like these bands. It’s more to do with the disappointment I feel in trying to capture something from the past that can’t be replicated. I missed these acts during their heyday, and I’m not interested in watching them trundle out their hits to an oversized crowd who may have also missed them the first time and now have the luxury of downloading their back catalog. That Love wasn’t playing with any of Hole’s former members — especially co-founder/guitarist Eric Erlandson — seemed to exacerbate matters.
However, the flaw in my argument is the presumption that the act in question doesn’t have new or relevant material to perform. Regardless of what people think of Nobody’s Daughter, it is a new album with a sweet cover that’s consistent with Love’s preoccupation with the dehumanizing aspects of conventional femininity. I’m not certain of the album’s immediate relevance, as the tracks I’ve heard are slightly better than the ones offered on Love’s disastrous solo foray America’s Sweetheart. I also wonder if her following stretches from Gen Xers to younger fans who are as enthusiastic to hear new music from her as they are to discover Hole’s first three albums. I’d imagine that this sort of activity is taking place.
But the real triumph of Love continuing the band seems to rest in the affirmation that maturing female members associated with Generation X still hold cultural relevance and refuse to leave. Love and fans in her peer group have carved a space for themselves in cheap red lipstick. This seems evident in VH1’s decision to use her story to relaunch its pioneering series, which premiered last Sunday. Clocking in at two hours, the episode is itself unremarkable. It hits on familiar plot points and ultimately flatters the subject by glossing over more controversial matters. What was noteworthy about the episode was the suggestion that VH1 was embraced its network status as MTV’s older sibling, acknowledged its target audience, and assumed that Love’s story would speak to its viewers despite many detractors who are appalled that the musician would have the audacity to continue making music.
I should acknowledge that I owe Love some things. Live Through This, an album that got a few of my friends through their awkward teen years, came out the spring before I started middle school and I adored it.
In my post on 120 Minutes, I explained how that program offered me a site of identification at a time when I felt like a complete outcast. Love helped me embrace my fringe status. Her tattered dresses, smeared make-up, visible acne, and barbaric female yawp were a revelation to me. I remember the first time I heard her voice crack when she screamed “what do you do with a revolution?” in “Olympia.” I would later learn that the song was against the homogeneity of the riot grrrl scene.
Like many of my peers, when I was ten, chubby, shy, and unpopular, I really needed to see and hear another strange female music geek with brilliant comedic timing own and confront people with her outsider identity. I needed to see someone else assert themselves successfully in such a public arena to know that I could do it for myself. It’s still pretty incredible to me that she was a pop star at any point, but I’d be fine with more pop icons making out with their female band mates on Saturday Night Live and throwing compacts at Madonna on live television. These antics really puts the scandal of Disney hellcat Miley Cyrus’s ear tattoo in perspective. It almost makes me forget that I was disappointed by how conscious and pedestrian her performance as Althea Flynt is in Miloš Forman’s The People Vs. Larry Flynt upon review, though I feel biopic sprawl is just as much at fault for my dissatisfaction.
In college, I’d get deeper into riot grrrl and take women’s studies courses, seminars, and self-defense workshops. But Love was the catalyst for how I would later define and practice feminism. In fact, on my way home from watching the Behind the Music episode at a friend’s house, a strange guy waiting for a bus tried to get in my car when I was at a stop light. I’d like to think that the poised, decisive manner in which I protected myself and the strength I found to drive home without freaking the fuck out has much to do with Love’s example. Because while Love has contradicted herself many times in her career, she’s always been a survivor.
Much emphasis is placed on Love’s scrappiness in the episode. The majority of the first hour delves into her nomadic childhood, her turbulent relationship with her mother, her delinquency, her stints in group homes, her lack of familial stability, and her need for fame, which manifested itself in the formation of various bands, appearances in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy and Straight To Hell, and multiple stints working at strip clubs. This transitions into the formation of Hole, her marriage to Kurt Cobain, the couple’s drug abuse, the birth of their only daughter Frances Bean, the trauma the couple experienced when the child was taken away from them following Lynn Hirschberg’s Vanity Fair profile on Love which alleged the subject used heroin while pregnant, Cobain’s thwarted battles with depression and addiction, her reaction to his death, Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff’s fatal heroin overdose, and the ill-timed release of her band’s breakthrough album.
I was pleasantly surprised that the documentary evinced candor on Love’s clear insecurities with her body and in her relationships with men. Despite her proclaimed assurance, Love is clearly obsessed with patriarchal approval. Her obsession with plastic surgery and dieting is evident, though only explicitly discussed by the subject. She’s particularly hung up on her nose, now winnowed down to a fine point that gives her voice a high nasal timbre. Given her recent comments that she’s good in bed because she’s ugly made poignant these insecuritie, along with Melissa Silverstein’s recent podcast about plastic surgery in Hollywood. Love’s desire to fit in with conventional glamour was always evident, suffusing her kinderwhore look with tension. I was pretty bummed when she let the red carpet dictate her look.
Love also has a long-standing habit of latching onto men for a sense of self-worth, though I did appreciate her left-field admission that she ended her relationship with actor Ed Norton because she couldn’t bear the thought of losing her identity as “Courtney Love” in order to become the wife of an A-list celebrity. In addition, I liked that Celebrity Skin‘s softer accessibility was born out of Love’s refusal to do a widow record. Of course, she wouldn’t have formed the band without discovering Patti Smith and Pretenders’ Chrissy Hynde, two artists who instilled in her the power of rock music.
I was curious as to how Love’s notions of celebrity may be antiquated in the wake of a collapsed music industry and fragmented market. While she’s still notorious on Twitter and occasionally gets in the tabloids, I’m of the mind that her ideations of the superstar died with Michael Jackson, which also contributed to his demise.
Finally, I’m interested in what or whom the episode chose to omit, as it primarily features interviews from friends. Hole drummer Patty Schemel is the only member who speaks on the band’s behalf, and nobody talks from Love’s ill-fated Bastard side project. None of Nirvana’s surviving members are present, undoubtedly because of their ongoing fued with Love over publishing rights. I found including footage of Love hanging out with Sonic Youth noteworthy, as there were no interviews with band members. Kim Gordon’s insights would be especially useful, as she co-produced Hole’s caustic debut Pretty On the Inside. However, Gordon believes Cobain was murdered, and veiled references to Love’s potentially amoral quest for celebrity in songs like “Becuz” suggest that no love is lost. I remember hearing in the commentary track for The Simpsons‘ “Homerpalooza” episode that Love was originally cast in the episode, but one unnamed act who was in the episode refused to participate if she was involved. I can’t help but think it’s them.
I’m also curious where Frances Bean is in this episode. After the events surrounding her birth are recounted, she’s largely kept to the periphery and never speaks on her own behalf. It could be an attempt to protect the girl’s privacy. Yet at the risk of pathologizing her mother, I’m of the impression that she’s often eclipsed by Love’s actions and behavior. Mirroring Love’s childhood, Frances was also shuffled among family members, left to her own devices, has a strained relationship with her mother, and wants to pursue music. So I’m fascinated by the cult of Courtney. I value some of her musical contributions and applaud her continued efforts. But let’s root for Frances too.
People sometimes refer to Polly Jean Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea as a kinder, gentler sound from the English singer-songwriter. Frankly, I don’t know what they’re talking about. Maybe it’s to do with the relative lack of drama involved in the album’s recording process, as Rid Of Me and To Bring You My Love were reportedly fraught with tension. It can’t be its content. Harvey may not make her lover lick her injuries, compare her selflessness in a relationship to a Sheela na Gig, or forsake heaven here, but the stakes couldn’t be higher. It may be love that she’s feeling, but it’s still potentially destructive and dangerous in its power, especially when let loose in (pre-9/11) New York City. It’s evident from opening track “Big Exit.” She wants the fucking gun, people.
If that isn’t enough vitriol for you, may I direct you toward “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore” and “Kamikaze,” two songs that may be responsible for the extraneous parental advisory notice printed on my copy of the album.
Stories From the City was my PJ record for a while, though Is This Desire? would later come to challenge my ears and ideals more. The first album I had was To Bring You My Love, which I got for Christmas my junior year along with The Chemical Brothers’ underrated Surrender. It was a profoundly upsetting listening experience. After listening to it all the way through, I listened to “Teclo” a few more times and hid the CD under the bed, a place that I’ve only since reserved for The Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. Its intensity scared me. But once I got used to it, Harvey’s intensity became one of her most clearest assets as a musician. It became especially appealing when juxtaposing her out-size voice, guitar playing, and stage presence against her shyness.
Some people also categorize Stories as her love album, which I also don’t understand, regardless of whether or not this album is about a rumored affair with Vincent Gallo. For one, I can’t pick an album of her’s for you that doesn’t focus on love. But this album seems most closely fixated on how love evolves, rather than obtaining it or being dashed against the rocks by it. Perhaps these were the same folks who quoted the lyric about Harvey watching her lover undress in the “This Is Love” and thought no more about it.
Did they hear “A Place Called Home,” “This Mess We’re In,” or “We Float”? Yes, these are love songs in a sense, but they are not about the beginning of a relationship but the restlessness or disillusion of it and the hope that it can become good or something else. There is no stasis here. Harvey’s bombastic guitar playing and Thom Yorke’s presence as a guest vocalist, most notably on “This Mess We’re In,” only ramp up the tension.
Even songs like “Good Fortune,” which seems to be an ode to wandering around New York’s streets with a lover, ends with the protagonist ready to uproot her sense of home.
I came to Stories during the winter of my senior year in high school. I was just about to break up with my first boyfriend. We dated for over a year, were totally unfulfilled and bored in our relationship, but were fairly a popular couple amongst the social circles of Alvin High School, which also made us kind of obnoxious. I was tired of being in his shadow and ready to move on. The album’s erotically charged content drifted me toward fantasies of galavanting around New York City with a mysterious stranger I met on the subway. This led me to project the album’s feelings on to the boy I started dating a week after I broke up with bachelor #1. It’s something I might share with fellow Harvey fan Rory Gilmore. Yes, songs like “One Line” are that powerful.
But the more I listen and reflect on Stories, the less I think about it as an album about the love shared between two people. Instead, it seems to be about the love a woman has for her interior life and how that’s manifested in her engagement with uncertain, sprawling terrains. These areas inform the album’s title and its content. For me, its most evident in Harvey’s engagement with the street, defined by longtime collaborator Maria Mochnacz‘s cover. Note that Harvey’s sunglasses, which protect her eyes from all that neon, present the illusion that she’s looking at you. It actually appears that she’s looking over her shoulder, perhaps confronting what may loom behind her. I think this freedom bewilders and excites her, as it does for many women who take time to acknowledge what a politicized act it is to walk a city street alone. I don’t do it near enough. When I do, I’m very aware of my size, sex, and, gender. I need to be more comfortable with it. I need to reclaim it.
It’s this love of the street that motivates her to study geography, navigating her environment alone in order to acquire a sense of fluency, since she has no interest in finding home beyond the journey toward it. Sometimes this leads to danger, which can also lead to epiphany. Sometimes these travels lead her to find someone to walk with, but can just as often prompt her to leave if her partner can’t or won’t keep up. This seeming departure from the wild, romantic gesticulations that characterize her early period into more mature, complex, and unresolved inter/personal reflections continues to inform her subsequent work (I’d argue it’s evident on Is This Desire?). Even if she doesn’t identify as a feminist, I’ll still follow the woman traversing the crosswalk alone.
I’ve noticed that all the album covers I’ve considered so far all feature the artist responsible for the work. Since I’ll soon write a blog entry on Joanna Newsom’s pseudo-odalisque for the forthcoming Have One On Me, I thought it would be fun to pick a cover that not only doesn’t feature musicians, but instead has an image that’s damn indecipherable.
Issues around legibility are why I didn’t choose to write about Vaughan Oliver’s cover for The Breeders’ better-known and wonderful Last Splash or his work on Lush’s Split. With the former, I’m 99.9% sure we’re looking at a heart-shaped strawberry covered in something more viscous than dew (edit: according to my friend Erik, it’s a liver). Also, that image compliments the album’s sticky ruminations on ripe female sexuality. Split‘s cover focuses on fruit as well, displaying lemons in a presentational manner that honors the album’s cinematic qualities but belies its ambiguous feelings toward dissolved relationships.
But what the fuck is going on with Oliver’s cover for Pod, the band’s debut? Is that some interpretive dancer wearing a leotard who has wilted green beans for arms? Are those even arms or are they another set of appendages? You got me.
(Note: again, according to my friend Erik, the cover is a picture of Vaughn Oliver dancing with eels strapped to his waist. Whoa!)
The swirl of gauzy lighting, sugary colors, and ambiguous figures is a hallmark of Oliver’s work with 4AD. I believe he did as much to create an aesthetic to match the label’s definitive dream pop and shoegaze as Peter Saville‘s stark, exacting compositions did for Factory Records’ output. With 4AD, the defining principle around both its look and sound was abjection. Annie at Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style recently brought up issues of abjection with regard to the construction of Jessica Simpson’s celebrity persona. Simon Reynolds and Joy Press made similar claims in The Sex Revolts about the womb-like sonic quality and pre-verbal, gender-ambiguous vocalizations that characterized much of shoegaze and dream pop, singling out My Bloody Valentine and 4AD labelmates Cocteau Twins.
I think The Breeders align with the abject as well. The name references founding members’ Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly’s sex and the naturalized biological function of the female body in ways that confront and mock patriarchal convention as well as evoke fear. This sense of terror is perhaps further enforced by the presence of bassist Kelley Deal, Kim’s identical twin sister. The album’s title suggests gestation, a bodily process fraught with abject implications. This theme extends to its songs as well. As Erik pointed out, “Hellbound” is about a baby who survives an abortion. The band’s origins even suggest the process of casting off, as Deal and Donelly initially came together to form a side project during the twilight of their time with 4AD acts The Pixies and Throwing Muses.
Furthermore, while The Breeders seem to have a more conventional sound anchored by accessible melodies, their music is far emotionally murkier than initial listening may suggest. Pod showcases a surprisingly clear, crisp production aesthetic engineered by Steve Albini for a pittance, but there’s something too narrow about the sound and too intense about the bright vocals and high harmonies. They help create a distinctly female tension that doesn’t get resolved after a quiet verse transitions into a cathartic, loud chorus. When the other shoe drops, as it does on songs like “Iris,” there’s little chance of release after the chorus so much as the certainty of more claustrophobic terror constricting the still moments waiting in the next passage.
And songs like “Oh!” contain little structural release apart from Deal’s splintered yelp at 1:47. They just wait. The band pounce elsewhere on the album, and you’re never ready for it when they let loose. It just proves that with women, like albums, can’t be judged by their covers.
Alyx, seriously? Today’s post is about an album cover that features the women of Ladytron in bathing suits? Pin-ups for folks who wear cardigans, make library puns, and like skinny girls? Great. I’ll go back to poring over my Tegan and Sarah albums. They look similarly gamine and like streaky make-up but aren’t scantily clad in repose on the grass being shot from above like an American Apparel ad. You keep fighting that fight.
I bring up the cover of Ladytron’s 2003 mix CD entitled Softcore Jukebox for these reasons:
1) The cover is eye-catching, though obviously in a problematic way. It objectifies vocalists Helen Marnie and Mira Aroyo, respectively wearing a sky blue tank and shiny black skull string bikini that I hope came from their own closets (but probably didn’t — do people swim in Liverpool?). In addition, it doesn’t even show the rest of the band, which is also comprised of dudes Reuben Wu and Daniel Hunt.
2) The title seems leering and provocative, but is also jibberish. What the eff is a “softcore jukebox”? Is it different from a “hardcore jukebox” in that it works with a crotch patch and doesn’t do penetration? Or would a cadre of queercore jukeboxes have to create a scene for themselves in response to the homophobic, homoerotic hardcore jukebox scene?
3) The cover is a modest revision of Roxy Music’s Country Life cover, which features Amazonian models in see-through underwear boasting serious 70s ladygarden. Country Life was so controversial upon its release that a revised cover had to be printed with the women taken out of the image.
4) Apparently a German artist named Pia Dehne reconfigured Country Life to address the gendered aspects of camouflage and mimicry.
5) Softcore Jukebox came out during a wave of mix CDs that featured dance songs with electronic instrumentation alongside rockier fare. Critics like citing Kings of Convenience leader Erlend Øye‘s DJ-Kicks compilation, but he was hardly the first to do this, as compilations like the Back to Mine series suggest. Hell, he wasn’t even the first person to make a DJ-Kicks compilation. I’d also like to put in a plug for Annie’s DJ-Kicks compilation, which features ESG’s “My Love For You.” Hot Chip’s gets my approval as well, along with any mix that has songs from both New Order and Positive K.
6) A cover that references an iconic album cover seems relevant, especially because the women in the band are the cover subjects and said band created a mix CD of pre-existing dance songs. Seems camouflage and mimicry may apply here, along with reference. This might be characteristic of the band. After all, Ladytron didn’t just swipe the cover of Country Life for their mix CD. They took their name from a Roxy Music song.
Much of my interest in Ladytron is in Marnie and Aroyo. I like how they try to sound like robots (or ladytrons), mimicking their coldness and just-out-of-date technological make-up while singing songs about the inherent datedness and fickleness of fashion, beauty, and youth (see: “Seventeen,” “Blue Jeans,” and “Beauty No. 2”). This juxtaposes nicely with the band’s reliance on electronic instrumentation.
In their later work — particularly the brooding Witching Hour — more traditionally rock instrumentation like electric guitars spike up their sound on songs like “amTV,” suggesting that Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees were as much of an influence on the band as Kraftwerk. Also, I can’t help but point out that TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me” features a fuzzed-out bass line very similar to Ladytron’s “International Dateline,” though my hunch is that both bands probably got it from Bauhaus.
This brings me to the mix CD itself, which smashes dance music and rock music against one another, suggesting the band’s influences and approaches. It also unearths a long-obscured truth: dance music has always co-mingled with rock and, later, hip hop. And I’m not talking about The Rolling Stones’ “Miss You,” as their interrelation has a much deeper, storied history. I always hate it when detractors say things like “not another synth pop track” or “I hate disco,” as if rock music and its studied authenticity doesn’t rely on rhythm sections and repetitive passages of catchy melodies too. As if rock is about the truth and dance music is just piffle. C’mon now.
As for the album’s content? Meh. Some songs work better than others, and some of it is fairly forgettable. Oddly enough, the most effective offerings for me are the rock songs that I didn’t know you could dance to. I’ll stand by The Fall, Wire, Shocking Blue, and Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra’s classic “Some Velvet Morning,” which is the compilation’s haunting closer. I already knew you could dance to !!!, Fannypack, and Cristina, so they get a pass. You can kind of jig to My Bloody Valentine’s “Soon,” the intro from which Garbage stole for “My Lover’s Box.” I liked that I also like Ladytron’s cover of Tweet’s “Oops (Oh My)” — an ode to masturbation, a premonition for me that Tweet and producer Missy Elliott might be more than friends, Missy’s first “ping!” on my gaydar, and a cherished memory as the “poem” one of my classmates read aloud with deadpan faux seriousness in a college English class. I like the original much more, but I appreciate the band’s effort to suggest that hip hop and R&B influence them. Let’s listen and compare, shall we?
Thus the cover, like song selection and reinterpretation, becomes a messy process for both band and listener that is guaranteed to leave grass stains.
When I began conceptualizing this blog in the ol’ brainspace, one of the first sections I came up with was “Records That Made Me a Feminist.” I knew Björk was going to get at least one entry. Homogenic and Vespertine each played a vital part of shaping my politics. So, I figured out I’d probably have to write about them together.
Pairing albums for this section of the blog is something I originally wanted to do this when covering Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, which I started listening to around the same time as PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. I liked the idea of dialoguing seemingly dissimilar work by female artists with one another, but I feared covering those two albums together would short-shrift the artists who made them. However, talking about two distinct pieces of work by one woman seemed easier. And essential. So here we go.
I must admit that covering Björk’s 1997 and 2000 full-length releases present its own political challenges that makes me think critically about how I understand and practice feminism. Both of these albums made me a feminist largely because of the boys I was preoccupied with at the time.
But while my initial reception and resulting connections to them were tied up with potentially normative feelings around romantic angst and heterosexual coupling, I feel the albums speak to my development at the time as well as transcend it. In other words, Homogenic and Vespertine may remind me of boys I used to date, but they speak to larger, more overtly feminist issues as well.
Of course, being a feminist doesn’t mean you can’t like boys or be hung up on them from time to time, so long as you don’t let them run your life. Which I don’t think Björk endorses in either of these records, even though she herself has an ambivalent relationship with feminism (though not with calling out the music industry’s sexist practices of attributing male engineers and instrumental songwriters).
Importantly, as both albums were prescient to my development, they also went over my head when I first listened to them. Debut and Post were more accessible and, as a result, I liked them almost immediately. It was hard for 10-year-old me not to fall for the girl dancing through New York City on a flatbed in the music video for “Big Time Sensuality.”
But Björk’s next two albums took more time to process. Both albums mark advances in the artist’s production sensibilities, approaches to music-making, and interest in electronic instrumentation. Thus, just as Björk had to evolve as a musician before creating these albums, I had to mature a bit as a person before liking them as a fan.
So, Homogenic came out just as I was starting high school. I don’t exactly remember when I bought it, but I think it was sometime toward the end of junior year. I completely ignored it at the time. Or rather, I listened to it once, went “ooh, so angry!” and put Post back on.
The particulars I’ll keep to myself for the sake of decorum. Suffice it to say that I dated someone for a little while, fell in love, we broke up, and I spent a little over a year trying to get us back together. It didn’t work out. Eventually I got over him and whatever I thought we were, but not without some pain and denial and then serious personal re-evaluation. The healing process involved some righteous anger, loud parties, several bottles of wine and other goodies, and burgeoning feminist development. After a rough start, 19 turned out to be a pretty okay year. Homogenic was its soundtrack.
Now, I have no problem acknowledging that this guy was a total jerk to me. But feminism isn’t only about recognizing and calling out chauvinistic bullshit. It’s also about self-empowerment, personal accountability, and un-learning heteronormativity and patriarchal co-dependence. It isn’t always just the guy’s fault, even when it is.
Thus, I also have to own up to being really needy and delusional at the time. I pinned my worth on whoever I was dating without questioning whether being with them was actually good for me. So I projected my own big feelings and insecurities on someone who clearly didn’t want to be with me. I was ignoring the reality of the situation and, as a result, my own well-being. I finally recognized what I was doing when confronted with the lyric “How could I be so immature to think he could replace the missing elements in me — how extremely lazy of me.”
Kinda appropriate that a break-up record got me over mine, no? Apparently, Björk made the album after breaking up with drum’n’bass musician Goldie while they were working on their own project. Hence lines like “So you left me on my own to complete the mission, but now I’m leaving it all behind.” But it pretty much hit all the right notes of melancholy, indignation, rage, and feisty recovery for me. I’m a quarter Norwegian on my mother’s side, so even the line “I thought I could organize freedom — how Scandinavian of me” in “Hunter” applied.
Attention must be paid to the album’s sound and how it marked a musical departure for Björk. Post was an eclectic mix that boasted songs like “Army of Me,” “Enjoy,” and “Headphones,” that opened up her sound to include state-of-the-art aggressive digital distortion and serene electronic minimalism.
While this was evident in the production work Tricky and 808 State’s Graham Massey did on Post, it wasn’t the focus. It would come to define the artistic work she began doing with producers like Mark Bell on Homogenic and would continue to do with Matmos on Vespertine. But I’d hedge that most casual listeners just remember Post‘s “It’s Oh So Quiet,” which was produced by Björk’s then-mainstay, Nellee Hooper, the man responsible for all the production on her breakthrough Debut. He was also responsible for “Hyperballad,” which I’d argue suggests the artist’s shift, which is fully evident on her next album.
Man, I wish I could post the music video, but WMG has apparently disabled the audio. All the more reason to check out Michel Gondry’s Directors Label DVD, or any of the other myriad DVD titles that have documented her videography.
So Homogenic marks a transition from being a pop star to an artist who challenges her listeners’ ears and expectations with each release. By 1997, we also heard alternative pop stars like Beck and Radiohead establish themselves similarly with Odelay and OK Computer. We would hear Radiohead do it again in 2000 with the mind-blowing Kid A, where they really demonstrated their love for electronic instrumentation and experimental production techniques.
Björk was already on this path in 1997, but while Radiohead looked outward toward the fallabilities of modern life, Björk looked inward at the seductive pleasures and wobbly peculiarities of domestic life and partnership on her next record, rapturing at her voice’s clicks and finding percussive possibilities out of shuffled decks of cards. I don’t think these innovations went unnoticed when Radiohead went to work on In Rainbows. To me, Vespertine‘s influence is all over a song like “Nude,” which was originally an outtake from OK Computer. This is further confirmed by the band’s rendition of Homogenic‘s “Unravel” as a tip of the hat. As if lead singer Thom Yorke’s backing vocals on “Náttúra” aren’t enough.
Hmmm. Maybe at some point, I’ll consider Yorke’s duets with Björk and PJ Harvey. Yorke is one of my favorite vocalists, a fact confirmed by a recent revisit of Hail to the Thief. If one of my friends ran a blog on male masculinity and music culture, I’d pen a guest entry in a second.
But I was afflicted with a troubled mind when Vespertine first came out. In addition to boy heartache, I was going through some considerable familial strife. I was also starting my first semester of college, so a tackier person might blame 9/11.
After seeing the music video for “Hidden Place,” I dutifully bought the album, along with My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, another at-the-time inscrutable release, at the Tower Records by campus. I listened to the album a few times, but my head was not in the right place for it. It was too contented and quiet. I couldn’t hear it. And then for a little while all I could hear was Homogenic at full volume.
To be blunt, Vespertine didn’t really make sense to me until I started having sex. Critics like Ryan Dombal would seem to concur. I remember seeing her performance of “Cocoon” on Jay Leno and thinking that it was really quiet, but totally not getting how micro-embodied intimacy is the song’s entire purpose. While I had a good understanding of mechanics and had engaged in related activities before going into my first listen, I don’t think a song like “Cocoon” makes sense to a person unless they’ve experienced it, to speak euphemistically, in a corporeal sense.
BTW, yes that is Bill O’Reilly adjusting his tie. If he was actually listening to the song, I’m sure he’d be appalled by how delightfully, defiantly sexual this song is and that it was performed uncensored on network television. Watching it now, I can’t believe I wasn’t really listening. Maybe I should have been leaning into the television.
Again, the particulars here aren’t really important. I was a week or so into being 20 and, frankly, didn’t want to be a virgin anymore. The guy was someone willing, it was fun, and didn’t last very long.
In short, the romanticism and emotional connectedness that is often built into such an experience was not there, nor do I regret that it wasn’t. I would find that later, which would make my understanding of those aspects of Vespertine more profound and further develop my feminist principles.
I bring sex into the discussion because I, to borrow briefly from Arrested Development‘s George Michael Bluth, find Vespertine‘s complex eroticism one of its most key contributions to what made me a feminist. Though perhaps a stretch and certainly not without its own distinctions, I tend to think of this album in accord with Audre Lorde’s wonderful essay “Uses of the erotic: the erotic as power.”
And while I don’t know if this entry’s subject has read the essay, something tells me that the same woman who identifies as bisexual and recognizes the erotic potential in mundane activities would concur with much of the theorist’s thesis.
Of course, feminists must also have the wherewithal to recognize that eroticism, even ephemeral evidence like orgasms, are luxuries to some women and girls. Not everyone is given a space, a country, or a political system that allows them the safety and freedom to enjoy and explore these possibilities.
But eroticism isn’t about cataloging who did what to whom for Björk. As David Fricke gestured toward in his review of the album for Rolling Stone, it might be everywhere, at once tangible and theoretical.
This is where I think it’s important to consider the album’s production sensibilities and Björk’s particular uses of her voice. In addition to non-conventional practices like sampling and turning seemingly non-musical domestic items into instruments, the singer’s voice is the album’s real focus. Because of how closely she’s miked, you can hear every tic, breath, whispered turn of phrase, and any other sound coming out of her mouth. As a result, her voice becomes a varied and vital instrument, an idea she has continued to develop and that has continued to stay with me.