Lena Willikens: Phantom Delia EP

“I’m an old punk,” Lena Willikens told Germany’s Groove magazine last year. “For me, everything needs to have edges, corners and rough surfaces.” To that list, I’d add frayed wires, tarnished metal, and greasy ball bearings: whatever the Cologne DJ pulls out of her bag, from contemporary dance music to krautrock B-sides, tends to sound like it’s been salvaged from a scrap heap. Maybe that battered, lived-in quality is related to the fact that everything she plays also needs to have a story—or at least, it tends to have one by the time she’s done with it.

For her monthly Radio Cómeme show “Sentimental Flashback”, Willikens puts together astonishingly diverse selections around themes both idiosyncratic and hyper-specific. One early show spotlit “the dark side of my record collection, focusing on the time period between ’77 and ’84”; she has gone on to make tributes to female electronic music pioneers like Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram; West African music from the ’70s; minimal wave and post-punk; and cosmic disco, redefined. (“Do you remember? Some years ago there was a cosmic disco revival,” she asked at the outset of the program. “That time I asked myself what is cosmic? After listening to Baldelli’s mixtapes, I think I’ve got the idea: play emotional, and fuck genre borders. I like that idea.”) And while her club sets may not be as rigorously thematic, they are said to be every bit as daring; her residency at Düsseldorf’s Salon des Amateurs has contributed to its reputation as one of dance music’s most progressive venues.

Phantom Delia is Willikens’ debut EP. Co-produced by Matias Aguayo, it’s in line with the aesthetic of his label, Cómeme—dark but playful, modestly mid-fi but full of attitude—but this is clearly Willikens’ show. She may have released little of her own music before now, but her aesthetic arrives fully formed. There are multiple inspirations audible here, but they all revolve around primitive electronics: there are the rudimentary thuds and drones of the early synth-pop known retrospectively as “minimal wave,” and there’s the sultry machine sex of groups like Detroit’s A Number of Names, of the foundational proto-techno single “Sharevari”. Towering above both styles is the figure of Delia Derbyshire, the record’s presumable namesake, whose pioneering work for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was enormously important in popularizing early electronic music. (Renowned for both her technological and artistic acumen, Derbyshire, who died in 2001, is also remembered as a feminist icon: upon graduating college, she applied to work at Decca Records, only to be told that they didn’t hire women. That her music would go on to become so universally known, even if her name was not—who hasn’t heard her theme for “Dr. Who”?—feels like vindication, to say the least.)

“Howlin Lupus” opens the record on an ominous note, as foghorn bleats tangle with wolf howls over typewriter clatter and minor-key throb. It’s got it all, really: a danceable beat, a widescreen sense of drama, and rich, resonant sonics evocative of copper wires and glowing tubes. On “Nilpferd”—that’s German for “hippopotamus”—detuned oscillators buzz and squeal while monotone muttering dissolves into deadpan laughter; it sounds like a bad trip in a concrete bunker, a real Cold War hangover. Her sound design comes to the fore on “Asphalt Kobold”, in which plucked tones thumb-wrestle with synthetic mouth harp. At the center of it all, a glassy bauble of a rimshot sound stands out as if presented upon a velvet pillow; it suggests coldwave aesthetics as a pinnacle of electrical engineering, a feat of design comparable with Braun’s legendarily sober, streamlined gizmos.

“Mari Ori” is all hopped up on Halloween vibes; wind whistles through the cracks of its drum programming, and the tremolo lead shivers as though terrified. (It comes as no surprise to learn that Willikens also plays Theremin.) Even on her clubbiest tracks, her touch is distinct from virtually everyone else working in dance music; it has to do with the way she uses drums as accents rather than pulse-keeping devices. That’s especially true on “Noya Noya” and “Howlin Lupus”, with their stumbling kick drums and stabbing white noise. She’s also got a real way with counterpoints, which she braids like pliable icicles, each strand chillier than the next—well, unless thawing’s your chosen metaphor, in which case look to the slow dissolution of the beatless closing track, “Phantom Delia”, a steady stream of sawtoothed frequencies seeping deep into the firmament. It is, after all, a kind of roots music—simply of a revisionist strain, bearing a mutant fruit that’s been decades in the making.

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Mike Jones: Money Train

Houston rapper Mike Jones’ moment in the pop cultural sun was brief but intense: He scored a multiplatinum hit with 2005’s “Still Tippin'”, broke his city nationwide, promptly fell out with his labelmates, and became a symbol for “too rich, too fast,” all basically by 2007. The line separating “icon” and “souvenir” is always perilously thin, but Jones made the leap more quickly than most rappers. By 2009, he only appeared in news feeds for getting punched by colleagues or robbed by friends.

Like T-Pain, with whom he appeared on “I’m ‘n Luv (Wit a Stripper)”, Jones has been quietly climbing back up his reputation cliff with a series of lower-profile, solid releases. “Where’s Mike Jones? I heard he back to runnin’ shit!” he proclaimed on 2011’s “Leanin On Dat Butter”, and while that certainly wasn’t true, the song was another notch in a long comeback campaign.

The Money Train, a mixtape dropped at the start of the New Year, is probably his most visible solo project since 2009, but it’s not much different from his other work. He very loosely approximates Quavo’s jumpy, bunched-up delivery on “On My Momma” and “Hallelujah”. “Call Me When You Need Me” and “What We On” feature digitally processed singsong that faintly echoes Chicago bop, but otherwise Jones doesn’t have much to offer to rap-listening kids who are probably too young to remember “Still Tippin'”.

The people Jones seems to be aiming for with Money Train are his old fans, people now in their 30s, who wonder what the hell happened to him. His next album, after all, is called Where’s Mike Jones?, but “What Happened to” would have made just a suitable name. He drops a few verses on “I Remember” that hint at his struggle and his come-up, but unlike T-Pain, who returned with a searing take on his post-fame exile, Jones has nearly nothing to say about where Mike Jones is, or what happened to him. He could have spoken on losing hundreds of pounds, weathering AIDS rumors, falling out with Paul Wall and others, and starting from square one, but Jones has never been interested in autobiography apart from “back then, hoes didn’t want me.”

Money Train is a well-made project: The viscous, fluttering “Foreign Whips”, produced by DJ Plugg, is moody and rich. Along with “Let Me Show You” and “Champaigne Music”, you can hear Jones mixing some of Drake’s melancholy into the tarry, slow-moving Houston mix that he has borrowed so much from. But the tape has a generic, stamped feel that makes it hard to care about. People moved by mild curiosity to download it will probably nod approvingly, but Mike Jones never did much as an artist besides exist, which is maybe why he also disappeared so easily in the first place. 

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A$AP Ferg: Ferg Forever

It was smart when RCA decided to release A$AP Ferg’s Trap Lord debut as a for-profit digital download, rather than the free mixtape it was originally conceived as. The album had the anthemic songs to justify being a formal debut, electric tracks like “Let It Go”, “Shabba”, “Work (Remix)” and the majesty “Hood Pope”. Though Ferg’s name probably wouldn’t pop up in the screenplay for Top Five, his energy and charm carried him through the material, blowing through wide-open running lanes thanks to a “HOOO!” or two. 

That Ferg Forever is a free mixtape, then, says it all; the quality is a mixed bag, and the sonic threads are far less uniform. Much like Trap Lord, Ferg relies on a stable of up-and-coming producers—two highlights in particular, “Fergsomnia” and “Dope Walk”, are respectively produced by VERYRVRE and Stelios Phili. He’s also collected tracks from known entities such as Big K.R.I.T., whose woozy direction on “Bonnaroo” feels out of place (not to mention that all Ferg does is list off ways he picked around at Bonnaroo) and Mike WiLL Made It, who teams up with Tinashe” on the flat “Thug Cry (Remix)”. There’s a dancehall song, “Jolly”, along with an odd to group anal sex (“Weaves”) which makes the “I FUCKED YOUR BITCH” refrain on Trap Lord lowlight “Dump Dump” feel downright classy. Clams Casino even shows up on “Talk It”, but his typically insistent energy is swapped for the effort of a goth teenager picking around in the “Mario Paint” song editor. Mixtapes are often dumping grounds for whatever comes to the artist’s mind, but here, it’s hard to argue for the form.

Still, the tape shines in the right places—the parts where it’s fun. Take “Fergsomnia”, whose stupendously goofy “FERGSOMNIA!” chant gives way to a characteristically knotty Twista verse. The reworked “Reloaded (Let It Go Pt. 2)” is a blast, full of “YAH!” ad-libs, a pair of blazing verses from Candy Caines and Ferg’s former tour partner, M.I.A., and a hilariously deployed sample from the slightly more famous “Let It Go”. It’s within these tracks that Ferg finds his voice, and while relationship songs like “Commitment Issues” have their heart in the right place, the undercooked, stream-of-consciousness recaps never tap into the glee of the highlights.

Even so: Ferg is a compelling young dude trying shit out, so it’s hard to fault the weaknesses of Ferg Forever too much. This wasn’t released as his sophomore album, after all, and in the meantime it’s interesting to watch Ferg style-sample, freewheel deliveries and rotate producers. Not everything floats, but if the shelf life of jams like “Shabba” are any indication, the handful of hits on Forever will hold Fergensteins over till Trap Lord‘s sequel is out in stores.

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Buzzcocks: The Way

“Are you smiling? Are you frowning?”, sings Pete Shelley on “Keep on Believing”, one of the best tracks on Buzzcocks’ otherwise tepid ninth album The Way. It’s a set of questions the band has been asking their listeners—and themselves—for 38 years. Following the departure of lead singer Howard Devoto soon after the release of their 1977 debut EP, Spiral Scratch, guitarists Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle took over as co-frontmen; from there, Buzzcocks perfected pop-punk before it even existed as such, infusing blurred, breakneck punk anthems with doomed romanticism, anti-macho tenderness, and a flair for nerdy screeds about technology and morality. At the heart of those Buzzcocks classics, though, was the nervy balance between happy and sad. Smiling and frowning weren’t an either/or, but layers of a single gloriously conflicted expression. Which only makes The Way feel even flimsier by comparison.

Buzzcocks’ most recent album was 2006’s solid Flat-Pack Philosophy, but those intervening eight years don’t mean much in Buzzcocks-time. Shelley, Diggle, and their shifting rhythm section (now comprising Chris Remington and Danny Farrante) have taken long breaks before, starting with the band’s original dissolution in 1981. If anything, The Way is a chance to flaunt the fruits of their latest rejuvenation. That chance is only barely taken. The album alternates neatly between Shelley- and Diggle-sung tracks, and Shelley’s songs mostly hover in the mediocre range. “Keep on Believing” squanders a grabby opening and some vicious velocity by failing to summon a deep enough hook, which Buzzcocks songs live and die by. In fact, the majority of Shelley’s contributions to The Way seem to forget that speed, distortion, and melody don’t mean anything unless they sync up into something that sticks in the ear; “The Way” and “Out of the Blue” also come on strong then quickly evaporate, while “It’s Not You” and “Virtually Real” come closest to grasping, if weakly, what Buzzcocks once uncontestedly owned. When “Virtually Real” tries to take on the dehumanization of social media, it almost works—the disconnect between true love and false fronts is, after all, Buzzcocks’ wheelhouse—until Shelley’s rant against trolls becomes what it hates.

Diggle has always been more erratic a songwriter than Shelley, and that hasn’t changed on The Way. His voice is gluey and growly when matched against Shelley’s boyish, heartbroken coo, but Diggle’s compositions define both the highest and lowest points of the album. On the overwhelmingly positive side is “Chasing Rainbows/Modern Times”, which is not only the best song on The Way, but the only song here worthy of being canonized into the group’s stable of classics. After a verse that puts a deft twist on the most basic pop-punk riff of all time, that of the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop”, Diggle’s indelible yelp carries the song through with nasal, nonsensical catchiness. “In the Back” is almost as good, but Diggle mars it with limp strings of clichés (“Everything’s not what it seems/ And what you give is what you get”); the turgid “People Are Strange Machines” doesn’t get any cleverer than its Doors-referencing title. His voice almost disintegrates on “Third Dimension”, an embarrassing pastiche of 21st-century frat-garage stomp, but it’s miles better than the five plodding, go-nowhere minutes of the self-serious “Saving Yourself”.

At their best, Buzzcocks can turn punk rock into a paean to bubblegum, bad love poems, and the Beatles. That bipolar exhilaration is evident on The Way, but it doesn’t snag as well as it could. Instead of jittery counterpoint, there’s a lax wobbliness to these songs, and that lack of interplay—both vocally and guitar-wise—is the album’s most glaring omission. Energy isn’t the problem; they just don’t know what to do with it. Every song here wants to be an anthem, and a couple almost hit the mark, but the majority are barely worthy of jingle-hood. The Way is the converse of what Buzzcocks fans might have come to expect from the band at this point in the game: Instead of growing soft and slick while retaining their songwriting prowess, they’ve stayed fast and raw—but left much of their popcraft somewhere behind.

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The Afghan Whigs: Gentlemen at 21

Greg Dulli sings about some fucked-up shit on the Afghan Whigs’ fourth album and major-label debut, 1993’s Gentlemen, a harrowing song cycle chronicling the death throes of a relationship. But when it came time to record “My Curse”, one of the darkest moments on the album, he didn’t think he had it in him. “I tried to sing it, but it was kinda really impossible for me to do,” he told Loose Lips Sink Ships back in 2005. “It was too close to the bone. Basically I chickened out.” That’s a remarkable thing to contemplate: This is, after all, an album that serves as an emotional exorcism, visceral and violent, played by a band not known for its squeamishness. Rather than tackle the song himself, Dulli enlisted Marcy Mays of the Columbus, Ohio, band Scrawl, and she sings the absolute hell out of it. Her slurred, scrawled vocals are tough-minded and defiant one moment, freshly bruised and broken the next, as she treads the tightrope between temptation and repulsion, between pleasure and pain.

“Curse softly to me, baby, and smother me in your love,” she all but begs, as though she must summon the courage to get each syllable out of her mouth. “Temptation comes not from hell but from above.” It is, to say the least, a powerful moment, but it also fulfills an important narrative function: If Gentlemen documents the demise of a romance, then “My Curse” allows the woman to tell her own side of the story, to call out the posturing in Dulli’s hyper-masculine lyrics, to express explicitly the pain he is inflicting on her. Offering a new perspective on the album’s brutal sexual politics, Mays reveals his outsize persona to be a ruse: a defense mechanism with which he can refract emotions too dark and messy and traumatic to face head on.

Perhaps that’s why the album still sounds so vital and so fresh 21 years on. Removed from the alt-rock boom of the early ’90s, Gentlemen is both personal and unknowable, cocksure yet deeply troubled—in other words, so complicated and contradictory that we’re still trying to untangle its knots. Gentlemen at 21 offers some fresh insights into this song cycle, but fortunately doesn’t remaster or repackage the mystery out of it. The album sounds sharper and a bit more dangerous, those coiled guitars riffs more potent and Steve Earle’s drums wilder and more insistent. And the bonus demos and covers reveal the DNA of the album, signaling not only the rock and R&B sources that inspired Dulli, but also giving some insight into the band’s creative process before they trekked down to Ardent Studio in Memphis, Tennessee.

Memphis figures prominently on Gentlemen, even if the album opens with the buzz of car wheels on the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge in the band’s hometown of Cincinnati. The Afghan Whigs had long been incorporating the sounds and fashions of black soul, funk, and jazz into their buzzy indie rock, which lent previous albums like 1990’s Up in It and 1992’s Congregation a sense of taut rhythmic urgency. The band had previously covered Al Green’s “Beware” and the Elvis hit “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road”, and they chose Tyrone Davis’ “I Keep Coming Back” for Gentlemen, proving their well of influences went much deeper than the usual alt-rock fare. While their contemporaries drew from indie bands like the Raincoats and the Meat Puppets or from classic rock acts like the Who and Neil Young, Dulli was much more interested in Stax and Motown, in Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes.

On later albums, these sources would become much more obvious, but on Gentlemen they are buried in the mix, evident in the strangled riffs on the title track and in the sensual drift of “When We Two Parted”. Drummer Steve Earle is crucial to this balance of styles and sounds, keeping time as tight as the great Al Jackson Jr. but adding the fills and frills of showy rock drummers like Keith Moon. (Sadly, this would be Earle’s final album with the band.) In this regard, the covers included with Gentlemen at 21 prove more substantial than your typical bonus material, not only providing a blueprint for the Afghan Whigs’ sound but also providing a sort of mixtape for the characters involved. It’s not hard to imagine Dulli’s narrator blasting the Ass Ponys’ “Mr. Superlove” for inspiration, or tempting a lover with Dan Penn’s “The Dark End of the Street”, or consoling himself with the Supremes’ “My World Is Empty Without You”.

Over two decades Gentleman has most often been described as a “song cycle,” a term that distinguishes it from a concept album or a narrative album (although both terms are to some degree applicable). If that idea persists, perhaps its due to the word “cycle,” which seems apt: Gentlemen ends more or less where it begins. Scene-setting overture “If I Were Going” opens the album with a slow fade-in finally interrupted by Earle’s stop-start drumbeat, and “Brother Woodrow/Closing Prayer” closes the affair with a long, cinematic fade-out, with a dissonant cello echoing the migraine drone of the Roebling Bridge. The sequencing shapes the album beautifully, creating a sense of emotional fatigue while only hinting vaguely at redemption. Thematically, however, that cycle implies a romantic fatalism, as though every relationship is doomed to end painfully.

That’s what makes Gentlemen at 21 such a compelling and necessary reissue, even if the album has never been terribly hard to find. Living with this record, whether for a few weeks or a few decades, only repeats the pattern and makes the songs sound increasingly, almost unbearably desperate. That urgency has not softened over time or even with the addition of bonus material. The early versions of these songs, recorded at Ultrasuede Studio in Cincinnati, show just how little they changed at Ardent, although it’s unclear whether they burst out of Dulli’s brain fully formed or the band sharpened them. Perhaps the most intriguing bonus track is the Ultrasuede version of “My Curse”, with Dulli singing lead. He toys with pitch and meter like a man with more to say than his voice can convey, but he’s more engaged with the material than he sounds on later bootlegs like Time for a Bavarian Death Waltz. In fact, he sounds relatively timid, perhaps even beaten, exhausted, raw, lowdown—as though he no longer possesses the hope or the courage to keep the cycle going. In a way, chickening out may be the boldest thing he ever did. 

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Sleater-Kinney: Start Together

“World domination is what I want for Sleater-Kinney.” I am wont to believe Carrie Brownstein when the Sleater-Kinney guitarist, then 21, qualified this 1996 assertion by shrugging it off as a joke. She was, in all likelihood, alluding to the mainstream-affixed mantra of Seattle’s blown-up grunge scene, which her own band’s roots in the nearby punk-feminist community of Olympia opposed. Like Bikini Kill and Fugazi before them, Sleater-Kinney would never succumb to the beckoning of major labels. And in 1996, with their crass punk insurrectionism, the idea of mass success was laughable. Of course, Brownstein’s reputation for regional parody on “Portlandia” now precedes her. “We’re never going to be huge like Pearl Jam or something,” she said in that interview, “but I want more people to have access to our music, not just the geeky kids.” Seven years later, in 2003, during the beginnings of the Iraq War, Sleater-Kinney played its first of many arena-sized gigs that year—on tour with Pearl Jam.

From 1994 to 2006, Sleater-Kinney seemed to have it all. The trio of Brownstein, singer-guitarist Corin Tucker, and (from ’96 on) drummer Janet Weiss created and then fervently revised one of the most distinctive sounds in rock: The friction of their overlapping voices—Brownstein’s monotone speak-sing anchoring Tucker’s wild vibrato—had an ecstatic, unusual beauty. The expressive longing of Tucker’s alone was a gift, like Kathleen Hanna‘s hardcore holler aspiring to the quasi-operatics of Iron Maiden‘s Bruce Dickinson. Tucker is perhaps the first punk singer to attempt such a thing while worshipping the enormity of, say, Aretha Franklin, channeling lessons from the Queen of Soul into her own singing, holding onto moments for dear life and then projecting them to the heavens, becoming Queen of Rock.

In practice, Sleater-Kinney were humble, imageless indie-rockers; in song, they demanded icon status. This streamlined set, Start Together, captures that dichotomy, archiving the Sleater-Kinney canon with care: from the ideological-punches of thirdwave feminism to their post-riot grrrl classic rock revisionism, all seven albums have been remastered and paired with a plainly gorgeous hardcover photobook, as well as the surprise of a reunion-launching 7″ single. In all, Start Together tells the unlikely story of how this band carried the wildfire of ’90s Oly-punk to pastures of more ambitious musicality—a decade that moves from caterwauling shrieks to glowing lyricism, from barebones snark to Zep-length improv, from personal-political to outright (left) political.

Sleater-Kinney was consciously about rock’n’roll. Lou Reed sang for Jenny whose life was saved by rock; Ramones told us how Sheena became a punk. In 1994 there was no shortage of women plugging in—newly born classics included Hole‘s Live Through This, Liz Phair‘s Exile in Guyville, PJ Harvey‘s Rid of Me, the Breeders‘ Last Splash—but the lineage of larger-than-life stars, the deified behind-the-head-shredders, still had few instances of women delivering rock-as-saviour meta-narratives themselves. Sleater-Kinney turned the machismo of hippie-blooded ’60s and ’70s rock on its head: covers of Springsteen and CCR, homages to Kinks and the Clash, Brownstein’s Pete Townsend windmills and shin-kicking swagger, Tucker’s defiant declaration that “I make rock’n’roll!” A life-or-death seriousness is omnipresent with Sleater-Kinney, but they never rejected rock’s base desires—sex, dancing, proverbial milkshakes—although sometimes they vaguely mocked them. Sleater-Kinney stole from men what men had in turn stolen from the margins: electrified blues that all still made girls scream.

The first Sleater-Kinney practice was in March of 1994. It was the spring that Kurt Cobain died. Hindsight paints it clear: Cobain’s desire for a future-rock made by women dispersed into the universe. Brownstein and Tucker did Sleater-Kinney as a side-project to their respective bands, the queercore power-chord screams of Excuse 17 and soul-baring punk of Heavens to Besty. Sleater-Kinney fused these politicized sounds, but as they grew—with affection for B-52’s shimmy and Sonic Youth cool—they never let the punk rulebook limit their vision. Riot grrrl was fragmenting and they learned from its successes and failures—a radical streak pervaded their writerly Hüsker Dü-type storytelling—but they also fought to not be removed from the context of their foundation. The wiry blast of 1995’s Sleater-Kinney is as good an indicator of Bikini Kill’s influence as any feminist album since, echoing their sound as well as an interest in making punk become activism.

The debut is foremost a rejection of heteronormative sex, as Tucker and Brownstein were reckoning with life inside their bodies as women who approached sexuality fluidly. There’s a song about how much sucking dick sucks, called “How to Play Dead”—it began Sleater-Kinney’s mission of showing how society can silence women and minimize their problems. The urgency is real; all of Sleater-Kinney was scrappily-recorded in one night, on a trip to Australia, where they enlisted drummer Lora MacFarlane, who also kept-time on 1996’s Call the Doctor. “A Real Man” is like an incendiary take on classic feminist text The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm: “Don’t you wanna feel it inside/ They say that it feels so nice,” Tucker gasps with visceral sarcasm. Call it clit-rock, I guess; over hard-style riffs, Tucker makes it clear she won’t wait “to cum every time.” Amid this whirlwind of pleasure and pain, which occasionally veers towards emo, Brownstein and Tucker’s whispers erupt on “The Day I Went Away”, one of two wistful songs that foreshadow Sleater-Kinney’s impending greatness.

Sleater-Kinney continued feeding its appetite for destruction of archetypes on 1996’s Call the Doctor. It improved their raw punk convictions in every way: more complex guitarwork, more distortion to intellectualize, more aggression and profound sadness. “Why do good things never wanna stay?” Tucker asks on “Good Things”, an earnest stomach-twister of a teardrop tune, while the dire “Anonymous” wonders why its female protagonist is voluntarily unspoken. “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” uses tradition to infiltrate and subvert—the riff could be Ramones pushing Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” into the red—to cleverly protest the worship of male icons and spur revolution: “I wanna be your Joey Ramone/ Pictures of me on your bedroom door/ Invite you back after the show/ I’m the queen of rock and roll.” It’s a two-and-half-minute rock’n’roll joyride deserving of a gender studies thesis.

Tucker’s fierce and vulnerable depictions of unconventional love marked the title track, where the dueling vocals first exploded. “It felt like something had opened up,” Brownstein told Rolling Stone. “We just stopped. And [Corin] was like, ‘This is so awesome, you have to keep doing that.’ It felt like I had fused with her. This bolt of lightning had gone from my chest to hers.” Call the Doctor landed at number three on The Village Voice’s then-influential critic’s poll. Their label, Chainsaw, couldn’t press copies fast enough.

Then, behold: Janet Weiss. She joined on 1997’s breakneck Dig Me Out, an all-time great American punk statement, giving Sleater-Kinney the most crucial muscle a drummer can offer: not sheer force, but heart, taking the momentum to a new plane. Sleater-Kinney released their next four records with the larger Olympia feminist label, Kill Rock Stars, but none distilled the band’s sound and attitude like Dig Me Out: sometimes brutal heartache, sometimes a menacing threat, always intelligent and extreme, there are enough hooks architected into these two- and three-minute songs to span several albums, but even the added dum-de-dum sugar seems as though it must be raw Portland agave.

“Little Babies” critiques stereotypes of motherhood, “Heart Factory” roars over synthetic emotions of the Prozac Nation, and the instantly classic “Words and Guitars” is an ode to rock that just feels necessary. At the peak of “The Drama You’ve Been Craving”—Tucker’s “Kick it OUT!“—there are practically fireworks bursting on either side. Really, Dig goes from 0-to-100 within seconds of its opening salvo of a title track, which begs for transcendence from worldly oppression, “Outta this mess/ Outta my head.” Unlike so much in the trajectory of punk, there is no nihilistic self-destruction in the face of chaos. More than skepticism, anti-consumerism, or the glories of tattoo art, punk teaches empathy, a principle Sleater-Kinney practiced with nuance. This is why Sleater-Kinney’s music shines a light despite its loudness, why it is easy to be alone with the songs and feel protected. Sleater-Kinney would never forego the optimism to believe their songbook could make us smarter, angrier, more tender and hopeful. Dig Me Out dreams of a better future, clawing itself up with every note.

The highlight of Dig Me Out and Sleater-Kinney’s career, “One More Hour” is one of the most devastating break-up songs in rock. “Oh, you’ve got the darkest eyes,” Tucker and Brownstein quaver in unison—the song is about their own short-lived romance—and the way Tucker extends the last word, it is like she can’t let them go. There are complex feelings near clear ones, which is what break-ups are: someone wants to untangle the mess, someone wants to snip it apart. “I needed it,” Tucker howls, hardly distinguishing where one word ends and another begins. “One More Hour” is sublime sadness, a kind one can only know when staring at the end of something and wanting desperately for it not to be so. 

This feeling would root 1999’s atmospheric The Hot Rock: subdued and spiritual, it served a number of firsts for Sleater-Kinney, among them a slot on the Billboard charts (at 181). Tucker, Brownstein, and Weiss had never sounded so introspective, existential, and dark, so aesthetically poetic and conventionally pretty. The album’s interlocking parts were influenced by the gentle alterna-pop of Go-Betweens and Yo La Tengo; voices intertwine gracefully, as if braiding together dreams and wounds. It’s the Sleater-Kinney record you’re most likely to play on a train while gazing out the window and getting lost in thought.

Brownstein and Tucker sang of personal becoming, the uncertainties of adulthood, dying relationships and technological paranoia—it was, after all, the year before tin-foil Y2K Bugs would signal the end civilization—sometimes with abstract metaphors. The jaw-dropping despair of Brownstein’s wearied ballad “The Size of Our Love” has a lonely ambience, a love-story plaintively set between hospital walls: “The ring on my finger/ So tight it turns blue,” she sings over a crying viola. “A constant reminder/ I’ll die in this room/ If you die in this room.” It’s unsurprising that Brownstein has since catapulted her storylines to a mass scale: Comedians are professionals at manipulating our emotions, and if it is one’s intention to make people laugh, it must help to have mastered the ability to make them cry.

The sun, ocean, and cosmos build the imagistic single, “Get Up”. A staccato riff quilts the emphatic drumming, and the guitar tones are magic—had the band not called those natural elements out, it’s evident that “Get Up” absorbed their expanses. Tucker’s hovering speak-sing evokes Kim Gordon beaming down from an imagined heaven on Sonic Youth’s “Tunic (Song for Karen)”. Echoing Patti Smith as well, Tucker’s words fly into the air as if given wings—”Goodbye small hands/ Goodbye small heart/ Goodbye small head”—zen-like as she watches her body go, “like a whole bucket of stars dumped into the universe.” Sleater-Kinney didn’t necessarily follow their ’60s rock predecessors into ashram training, but this reflects the Eastern belief that when you die, you become a part of nature. Tucker works through primal desires—”Do you think I’m an animal? Am I not?”—and despite the textured makeover, The Hot Rock emerges as one of Sleater-Kinney’s heaviest records.

Swinging back to capital-R Rock, 2000’s All Hands on the Bad One was Sleater-Kinney’s most straight-ahead arbiter of thirdwave feminism and also, surprisingly, their most jovial record. Sing-song guitar-pop turned up alongside plainspoken take-downs of sexism in music, and hints of new wave, girl-groups and Go-Gos mixed (cohesively, too) with some of their hardest whiplash-rippers. The enormously hooky “You’re No Rock n’ Roll Fun” taunts dry girl-averse indie snobs: “You’re no rock’n’roll fun/ Like a piece of art that no one can touch!” the trio sang together, throwing “whiskey drinks and chocolate bars” at these guys to shake up the mood, ’cause why not? When Sleater-Kinney note how “the best man won’t hang out with the girl BAA-AAND!” we’re only left wondering why he’d pass on such fun.

Similar humor plays out on “Milkshake n’ Honey”, a Spinal Tap-esque wink at the debauched rocker/groupie complex, but the incisive messages make the best songs: “The Professional” uses charged surf-punk to condemn the marginalizing of women in music, “Male Model” dismantles the sexist canon and rejects investigations of women’s authenticity. A lyrics sheet proves Bad One is Sleater-Kinney’s most direct sloganeering, but it doesn’t come off as such; Tucker’s ferocity and Brownstein’s French-sung interjections make it cool, even. “#1 Must Have” is the centerpiece, in which Tucker dissects the commodification of riot grrrl and—in light of the rapes at Woodstock in ’99—powerfully asserts, “The number one must-have/ Is that we are safe.” The song’s lasting relevance can’t be overstated.

The world was irreversibly changed by the time of 2002’s One Beat, Sleater-Kinney’s weightiest record. Adventuring with math rock and stomping horns, it was their most explicitly political album, grappling with the aftermath of 9/11 on “Far Away” and “Combat Rock”. These songs reflected the national headspace as selflessly as any act of using someone’s tragedy for art allows. Tucker questioned the all-or-nothing patriotism sweeping the U.S., and detailed her own experience that day with raw catharsis, calling-out the hidden President Bush, honoring those who served, and striving for a glimmer of kindness: “I look to the sky/ And ask it not to rain.” One Beat was not all war songs—the bouncy organ-led love-anthem “Oh!” had glammy inflections, “Prisstina” chronicled an outcast’s discovery of rock. The closer, “Sympathy”, rips instrumentation from “Sympathy for the Devil” but inverts its theme, a prayer for the life of Tucker’s premature-born child: “There is no righteousness in your darkest moment,” Tucker belts, “We’re all equal in the face of what we’re most afraid.”

Even the scope of One Beat couldn’t predict Sleater-Kinney’s monstrous phase-one farewell, 2005’s The WoodsThe band’s appeal had become that of the indie rock mainstream, and a suburban high-schooler (such as myself, then) could readily learn of The Woods‘ greatness from the same weirdo dude-friends who repped new CDs by Queens of the Stone Age, the White Stripes, and Wilco (like I did). Sleater-Kinney had just played arenas with Pearl Jam, bending notes into heavier, looser sounds, when they journeyed upstate New York to track The Woods with producer David Fridmann, himself only two years removed from helping turn Flaming Lips’ 2002 opus Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots into a wider breakout.

When your best work is also your most uncompromising and unintelligible, you have accomplished a considerable artistic feat—this was the The Woods. It was tracked live with more distortion than usual, giving it a freneticism, a deranged euphoria. “[Friddman would] say things to Janet like, ‘Play like Keith Moon, but Keith Moon with a blanket coming down over him,'” Tucker said. That possessed orchestra-of-rhythm translated. The album’s heaving 11-minute mega-solo, “Let’s Call It Love”, and the soulful echo “Night Light”, comprise a grandiose jam colored in Deep Purple. Zep riffs abound. “Entertain” is an atypical military march, declaring war on hollow retro rock; its “woah-oh-ohs” are more like shields than exaltations. “You come around looking 1984/ You’re such a bore, 1984/ Nostalgia, you’re using it like a whore”—Brownstein’s Orwellian invocation opposes this music with a far more poetic dismissal than “Fuck Interpol.” Sleater-Kinney’s first six records gave a lens through which we might imagine a feminist rewrite of classic rock; The Woods is a front-row seat.

“Jumpers” was inspired by a New Yorker piece on suicides at the Golden Gate Bridge—”the intensity of feeling that you can’t find meaning in your life, so you need to find meaning in your death,” Brownstein said—which oddly befit the band’s decision to end on top. “Modern Girl” is Sleater-Kinney’s most timeless song, impressionistic as closing one’s eyes and staring at the brightest star: “My whole life was like a picture of a sunny day,” Brownstein sings, like Sleater-Kinney’s “Yesterday”. But embedded in the soft twinkle is a critique of the consumer culture Sleater-Kinney resisted. (They despised the new proposition of a career-shifting iPod commercial.) The band stopped just as independent music was becoming more financially significant—2004 was the year future indie-Grammy-holders Arcade Fire landedbut traditional notions of integrity were also growing complicated. Brownstein was strangely prophetic: “I took my money/ And bought me a TV/ TV brings me closer to the world.” This is music you make when you can sense it’s one more hour ’til the walls close in.

Little is concrete in rock’n’roll—at the very least, its pivotal moments have often been shrouded in discrepancy and myth. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was the first guitar hero; no, Robert Johnson. Pete Townsend’s guitar-smashing was auto-destructive art; no, Townsend’s wrecked guitar was privilege. Elvis is dead; Elvis is in Las Vegas. Punk started in London—no, New York—girls started punk rock, not England. But there are unequivocal truths of Sleater-Kinney’s career. Objectively, the trio was born of riot grrrl, an underground band that started with two girls together in a living room and became the movement’s greatest critical success and so much more: an initial seven-album streak worthy of setting in stone eternal. There is an overcast art-print that accompanies Start Together, set at a weathered race track: Tucker is pounding pavement with a raised fist, Weiss is caught in a fierce skip, and Brownstein, in the middle, has both arms extended skyward, cracking a smile as if she just crushed a marathon. In reality, the band was only just beginning. Sleater-Kinney look invincible there, triumphant even, like superheroes, and if Start Together proves a thing, it is that with passion, persistence, and unwavering purpose, ordinary people can become them.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1oA8wFv