Tagged: post-punk

Why we should care about Suburban Lawns

My new old favorite band, Suburban Lawns; image courtesy of breakthruradio.com

So, my friend Curran just told me about this Long Beach-based post-punk band from the early 80s. Apparently they were set to be something of a bigger deal than they ended up becoming. They had a recording contract with I.R.S. Records, who were also home to West Coasties The Go-Gos. Jonathan Demme directed the music video for their single “Gidget Goes to Hell,” which played on Saturday Night Live and later cast lead singer Sue McLane (alias Su Tissue) in Something Wild.

But while I’m sad that I didn’t know about them until today, I’m glad I know about them now. I think you should too. I’m pretty in love with the following clip that Curran sent me, which is of the band performing their song “Janitor” for a TV appearance. Note Tissue’s awkward unperformance performance, the weird voices she affects seemingly at random, and that the song’s main lyric is about mistaking someone saying “I’m a janitor” with “Oh, my genitals.” Are you in love yet?

Records that made me a feminist: Electrelane’s “Axes”

Cover to Electrelane's Axes (Too Pure, 2005); image courtesy of betterpropaganda.com

Recently, my friend Ivan posted a clip on Facebook of the late, great Electrelane playing “Bells” off their penultimate Axes at a Portuguese music festival in 2007. Since I’ve been mentioning the album’s influence on my feminist development for a while, let’s get into it.

"Don't let our British dandyism fool you -- we are Electrelane and we will melt your face off" (top row, clockwise from left: vocalist/guitarist/pianist Verity Susman, guitarist Mia Clarke, bassist Ros Murray, drummer Emma Gaze); image courtesy of blogs.villagevoice.com

I was already a fan of the group when Axes came out. I reviewed The Power Out for KVRX, perhaps helping in some small way to make “On Parade” a college radio hit.

I only had the pleasure of seeing Electrelane in concert once, but I really couldn’t ask for a better experience. They opened for erstwhile Mr. Lady labelmates Le Tigre at Emo’s right after my birthday in 2005. Le Tigre were fine, but Electrelane were a lightning bolt into my being. Simply put, it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen a band so much in control of the chaos they were making.

One thing Electrelane demonstrated for me was the power that emanates from women playing music together. I’m not referring to the novelty of it, as I wish all-female bands and female instrumentalists in mixed-gender bands were more commonplace. I’m talking about women coming together collaborate on a creative project. I believe it to be a decidedly feminist act.

Collaboration is important and should not be devalued. Often women are singled out in music culture and are expected to work alone if they choose not to work with men. I’d argue that this is true in other professions as well. In their seminal book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards mention that several women discouraged them from writing the book together, as it would not be taken seriously. I think much of this is to do with the privilege given to sole (male) authorship, and having women abide by it — if we are to follow liberal feminist principles — ensures professional advancement. I also think it’s bullshit. There is nothing weak or compromised about working with someone on a project. In my experience, it only adds depth and nuance to whatever I’m working on. I also think it helps prove that women and girls can, in fact, be civil and work together rather than tear each other apart for individual advancement. Thus, female collaborations can be politicized acts. Modeling these working strategies in public is a politicized act too. It’s why Kristen at Act Your Age and I do it whenever we can.

Cover to Manifesta (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000); image courtesy of brooklynmuseum.org

Though I do think there’s something distinctively female about Electrelane, I don’t think it’s their sound so much as their approach to creating that sound. There’s muscularity to it, which is bolstered by precision. Being precise may not seem a rock ideal, but it’s how they work together as a unit, even when it sounds like they are in discord or riding musical tangents. It’s the sound of work. To my ears, it’s the coiled fist and dexterous fingers of women proving they can rock even harder and tighter than the men.

And there’s just something so empowering about seeing women work together so well. And while I love Sleater-Kinney and have seen and heard some of their remarkable concert footage, their shadow may be cast over bands like Electrelane who I feel don’t get as much credit for being such a tight musical unit. Lead singer Verity Susman doesn’t have Corin Tucker’s golden wail. Neither Susman nor Mia Clarke channeled Pete Townsend’s showmanship the way Carrie Brownstein did on stage. But that doesn’t mean that these women aren’t their peers. I mean, Emma Gaze is just as mighty a drummer as Janet Weiss. As far as I’m concerned, we should link these bands together more. Maybe put them on a bill together. That’d be a hell of a reunion.

Reunite, Sleater-Kinney! Share a bill with Electrelane!; image courtesy of pitchfork.com

At the time of its release, many critics noted that Axes was largely instrumental. This only seemed exceptional against The Power Out, which offered lyrics written in English, French, German, and Spanish. Indeed, their debut album Rock It to the Moon was scant on lyrics as well. Apparently Susman told the NME that this was much to do with lyrics making their compositions sound predictable and too resolved. While band members considered themselves feminists, they tended not to address their politics through lyrics (though “On Parade” is absolutely about same-sex desire, and their cover of “The Partisan” is meant to be read as a protest against the Iraq War). By creating the songs as instrumentals actually gave the band more room for sonic exploration. I’d concur and often think about how dispensing with lyrics can be used toward political ends.

Sure, lyrics convey information. They also give listeners easy, sometimes profound points of identification with artists. Lyrics can be mounted as evidence. They can also be ignored, though they shouldn’t be. But as valuable as words are, they can also be limiting. They can demystify. They can be too exacting, and therefore obvious. They can fall short of delivering the message they’re attached to as well. And sometimes putting them into verses and choruses and bridges can take away the words’ charm. Instead of telling the joke, they explain it.

Some vocalists have bypassed proper lyrics, opting for gibberish, lists, scat, sloganeering, or free association. Some musicians, like Electrelane, forgo words altogether at times, and I don’t think the decision to do so should be conceptualized as a devaluation of their verbalized ideas. Rather, I think we might be able to argue that systems of language can fail women and girls, both in their musical compositions and in the larger world of cultural interaction.

Also, sometimes talking about being feminists isn’t enough. Sometimes you have to lead by example. Show, don’t tell.

Electrelane showing, but not so much telling; image courtesy of myspace.com

Thus, they turned toward their instruments — which abide by the conventional, masculinized rock set-up, particularly channeling bands like Neu!, Can, and The Velvet Underground — to make loud, abrasive, abstract music that evolves and builds but never tends to arrive at full resolution (or “climax,” to use a masculinist term). Their compositions, and the deliberate stylistic choices they made toward repetition and dischord bring to mind Susan McClary’s seminal Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality, which argues against the traditionally masculinized values of structure and resolution in canonical classical music and champions the hypnotic, dissonant, unresolved tonal quality of many female composers’ work.

In Axes, there are no proper choruses or verses. Some songs don’t even reach a proper theme. Others do, either to repeat it at length or vary it slightly with each refrain. A song will stumble upon a melody as if by accident, and then deny the listener a chance to re-engage with a familiar tune. The band has already moved on and will not be returning unless they feel like it. Nothing is fixed. It’s not taking the master’s tools to dismantle his house, but it feels pretty close to me at times. Re-enlisting veteran engineer Steve Albini after his work on The Power Out and recording together in one room domesticates their sound in surprising ways, and roughs up staid notions of female domesticity. Having Susman stab at her piano – once a symbol of proper female socialization — probably helps too.

This lack of emphasis on lyrics and hummable melodies can be really frustrating for casual listeners, especially those looking for the one single to latch onto. Electrelane doesn’t really provide it on Axes, requiring that you listen — and feel — the entire album as a total experience. This is a pretty audacious thing to ask a listener to do, particularly when an album can get cut up into mp3 files. It’s also music that doesn’t make for easy participation. There’s no place to shout “words and guitar, I got ‘em!” and thus no easy site of identification either alone with your headphones or with the crowd at the gig. The band doesn’t give many nods of recognition. But I think if you spend time with the album, you’ll find it. Maybe start with “Two for Joy” and work your way through “Gone Darker.” After that, stretch past to the end and let it play to the beginning. That way, you can listen to “Bells” over and over again.

However, I do propose a listening tactic for people struggling to get into this album: play along. If you have a guitar, pile it on top. If you have a flat surface to bang on, tap out a rhythm. And if you have a voice, sing along. Just because the songs are instrumental doesn’t mean they have to remain that way. Remember the feminist possibilities in collaboration and join in.

Is Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” saved by the soundtrack?

The first time I saw the trailer for Sofia Coppola’s third movie, which featured New Order’s “Age of Consent” . . . the word you’re looking for is “stoked.” I watched the movie several times when it came out. Indeed, the subject of my first grad school conference presentation (originally developed as a term paper) was about the use of popular music in Coppola’s movies and paid particular attention to her third feature. 

 

Some friends at the time dismissed the song selection as evidence that this was to be Coppola’s A Knight’s Tale. To me, this suggested short-sightedness (short-hearedness?). While I wasn’t sure whether the movie was going to be good so much as pretty, I knew the meaning of this biopic on Marie Antoinette would be gleaned from the music. Selecting a song about coming of age and its desperate, doomed implications from a band who, at the time of the song’s recording, had reformed after the recent loss of their young lead singer to suicide at the dawn of the Reagan/Thatcher era? Using it to frame the inevitable tragedy of a young woman who unknowingly inherited a fallen regime? Pitch perfect, if you ask me. You can say what you want about Coppola’s movies, but she knows how to pick a song. Or at least she knows how to pick a song selector, in this case music supervisor Brian Reitzell, to clear some post-punk classics from her youth.  

The movie itself appears apolitical, as would seem appropriate as it focuses on a clueless and ridiculously wealthy group of young people who have no idea what kind of tragedy they’re about to inherit after generations of neglect. The audience, on the other hand, know Marie Antoinette’s life will end at the hands of righteously pissed poor French people who cut off her head. Some characters clue others in on the contentious relationships France has with itself, Austria, Poland, and a set of colonies that was becoming the United States. Most people are too busy buying shoes, throwing parties, trying to extend the family line, or having affairs. 

The musical selections serve to politicize the movie. The deliberate use of anachronism intrigued me, particularly when creating analogues between the political unrest of pre-Revolutionary France and England’s recessionary 70s and the early days of Thatcher’s reign. Class distinctions aside, it’s easy to draw connections between the unseen revolutionaries and the somewhat subcultural art school punks and New Romantics, many of whom drew from this era in their own work. Thus, I was thrilled that Coppola’s imagining of Versailles last days included Adam Ant, Siouxsie Sioux, Bow Wow Wow, and Converse sneakers. 

 

Take the opening sequence as an example. The movie begins with an opening credit sequence accompanied by “Natural’s Not In It” from once-anti-capital post-punk band Gang of Four. The song indicts the empty pleasures of consumerism. The screen is black, with personnel credits appearing in hot pink. Only one vignette is shown during this part of the movie. It is of the young queen complying with the mythology of the frivolous heiress. In this scene, she lazes while an attendant puts on her shoe. She absent-mindledly runs a finger across an elaboratedly iced cake, licks off her treat, and addresses the camera with a decided air of self-satisfaction. Let them eat cake off my finger, bitches. 

In tribute to my friend Kit, who could watch this scene on a loop; image courtesy of tinkersdamn.wordpress.com

 

Unfortunately, Gang of Four sold out big time. Did anyone see catch reunion tour? I didn’t, but I heard they charged $20 for merch. Upon hearing this news, I let out of a sigh, looked up, and nodded to irony’s unseen deity. 

There are several moments where post-punk is used. One scene uses a cover song to highlight the sexy but empty promises of commodity fetish from a pre-fab band with a pre-teen girl singer who was marketed as sexually available by their Svengali. Another scene highlights the spoils of youth during moments of celebration with a song performed by a band that were supposed to be Joy Division but became New Order. The scene at a masked ball suggests a Western mindset that criticizes the packaging of girls like consumer goods with a song that has racist assumptions about Eastern traditions from a female punk who played with fascist and Orientalist imagery. The last scene seems to endorse the belief that sexual awakening, like many white people’s romantic notions of a monolithic Native American culture, is primitive and innate. Yowza. Of course, if you don’t know these songs you may lose these layers of interpretation. Thus Coppola’s movie demands that you listen as well as look for meaning.     

 

 

 

 

Coppola also does a good job stealing from other people’s movies. The jump cuts suggest indebtedness to the French New Wave and the mise-en-scène recalls Barry Lyndon and The Leopard. But musical cues suggest other cinematic references. Witness Antoinette’s morning routine, which is shown three times during the movie. It’s scored by Antonio Vivaldi’s “Concerto alla rustica,” originally composed in the early 1730s.  These scenes are supposed to convey the repititious and dehumanizing nature of her existence. The song is used the same way in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, except instead of playing as a young heiress gets dressed in front of the female members of the court, it scores a director-choreographer pounding Dexedrine and Alka-Seltzer.   

 

Coppola hedged her bets by casting Steve Coogan, perhaps because of his performance as Factory Records impresario/post-punk godfather Tony Wilson in Michael Winterbottom’s 24-Hour Party People, as the queen’s long-suffering advisor who knows Versailles, like Rome, is about to fall. It could also be argued that Marianne Faithfull serves a similar function in her role as Antoinette’s mother Maria Theresa. Not only did she inherit a matrialineal heritage of Austrian nobility, but she’s also a hardened, toughened relic of the swingin’ Sixties and a survivor of the sexism behind its free love ideals.  

Marianne Faithfull as Maria Theresa; image courtesy of artandmylife.wordpress.com

 

This movie could’ve been really great. It sets out to do something fresh and modern with period pieces, deliberately disorienting the viewer with moments of anachronism, not only in music, but also in dialogue, characterization, and costuming. Coppola said the intent of these moments is to humanize the people behind this history, some perhaps interpretting the movie to be autobiographical. But I don’t think Coppola ever fully humanizes her subject. I also don’t believe the movie is really supposed to be about her, her jet-set life, or the ridicule she received for her performance as Mary Corleone in the final installment of her father’s Godfather series. Though if you want to read Marie Antoinette as Coppola’s attempt at a biopic, she does cast her boyfriend Thomas Mars in the movie, whose band seranades the young queen. 

 

Coppola does accomplish something far more interesting here: by distorting place and time to such an extreme, she obliterates the idea that period pictures adapted from historical biographies ever attempt to be historically accurate. Indeed, there is no real history. The past then becomes open to interpretation, with no reading a true, definitive version. Indeed, history as a discipline becomes an unreliable narrator. 

But the movie never quite works for me as a text so much as a theoretical exercise. 

I hate to blame the success of a project on one person, but Coppola made was unwise in casting Kirsten Dunst. Past her performances in Little Women, The Virgin Suicides, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, and what I’m told is a noteworthy turn in Interview With a Vampire, Dunst is a limited actress. I used to think that Dunst was believable in her portrayal of the young dauphine and that, once she had to play the queen of France and had to demonstrate (or believe she was demonstrating) emotional maturity, I was kicked out of the text. This opinion presents an interesting challenge, which I’d pose to Kristen at Act Your Age: what does it mean when an adult actress can convince an audience that she’s 14 but not 30? Also, I think the movie should end once Marie Antoinette is crowned. By stretching on into her adult years and stopping short of her death, the movie no longer seeks to revise the period biopic and instead becomes one. 

But upon review, I find that I don’t buy Dunst at all. She gives a servicable performance if Coppola set out to turn a magazine photo shoot into a movie, an argument I remember my friend Karin making. The movie could be so much more than Nylon‘s take on Versailles, but Dunst can carry it. I don’t buy her losing her dog, having a baby, embarking on a torrid affair, or saying goodbye to the palace and her life. I also never believe the complex angst she’s supposed to be feeling about her sham marriage to late-bloomer Louis XVI (played by Jason Schwartzman) or all of the ridiculous expectations placed upon her narrow shoulders. 

This is about as close as Dunst gets to inner turmoil; image courtesy of iwatchstuff.com

 

One scene completely kicks me out of the movie. Leading into the buyer’s remorse porn of the “I Want Candy” montage, the dauphine breaks down and decides to rebel against the court by turning spending sprees into a lifestyle. This could be a very powerful moment in an ornately feminine movie about one of the most maligned and notoriously well-appointed female figures in European history. The camera is uncomfortably close to the subject, peering at her convulsing face and heaving chest with voyeuristic intent. This could be an ugly scene with a decidedly feminist subtext in line with Linda Williams’s reading on the abject qualities of melodrama, horror, and pornography in her seminal essay “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Except there is nothing to see. Dunst provides no tears, no facial distortions, no gutteral sobs. It’s easily one of the prettiest and most detached fit of hysterics I’ve seen. 

It would seem that this is the performance Coppola wanted, and that Antoinette’s release comes from shopping. This also suggests that Antoinette can’t cry, and that her upbringing does not allow her the ability to lose composure. But I have to wonder if it would be easier to empathize with a character played by someone who is acting instead of modeling. For a movie that attempts to humanize a villified historical subject, this scene actually suggests that she’s inhuman. Perhaps it’s because she’s a theory and not a person. And if that person isn’t presented as complex, at least the theories that cultivate her existence are a minefield.

Covered: The Breeders’ “Pod”

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.

Cover for The Breeders' Pod (4AD, 1990); image courtesy of merryswankster.com

(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.