You probably know Karen O for putting the ‘new’ back into the New York City punk scene with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. That was some of the brashest party music in recent history. So it may be surprising that O’s solo work has been in a notably different vein. O’s solo album Crush Songs is bona fide crying-alone-in-your-bedroom music, which she may or may not have actually wrote and recorded alone in her bedroom while crying. I mean, she probably didn’t literally do that, but it sounds like she did. I’m not sure that anyone was itching to hear the preeminent punk rock goddess of the aughts get that vulnerable and raw with us. Personally, I’ll take her in boot-stomping mode any day; the music scene is filled to overflowing with girls crying over their keyboards and acoustic guitars. But if you feel the need to get emo with it, you could do a lot worse. It’s a pretty lovely record.
Any excuse to listen to a lot of T. Rex. I’ll be over here doing that. I’m aware that I’m most likely the only one who cares about the minute gradiations of the T. Rex sound over time, or the steps Marc Bolan took that were ahead of his time. Bolan’s problem was that he was ahead of the times but not far enough ahead to get all the credit for it before others caught up and popularized his ideas into the stratosphere. Still, the T. Rex sound is instantly recognizable, and nobody else ever sounded quite like that.
Kurt Cobain: your favorite male feminist and mine. During his short tenure as the voice of his generation Kurt Cobain could not have been a better role model (aside from the whole heroin thing.) Like any good messiah, he denied that he was the voice of anyone, which of course cemented him in that role even more. But he used his platform to speak about his frustration at the deep sexism within the music industry, and all across the board. He hated the machismo and aggression in the underground punk scene he started out in, and soon found that the mainstream industry wasn’t any better. He was an early supporter of the Riot Grrrl movement; in The Punk Singer he gets a shout-out from Kathleen Hanna for being the only friend who believed and helped her after a sexual assault. I remember a few things about the early 90’s and one of them is the lively debate then going on about whether date rape is a legitimate thing or just another example of feminist hysteria. (We’ve since reached a general consensus that it’s most definitely a real thing, and it’s mostly considered pretty much illegal nowadays.) I also recall some hand-wringing and controversy as higher learning institutions started to implement campus anti-sexual assault policies; there was some deep concern that the awkwardness and effort of procuring a partner’s verbal consent would leech all of the fun and spontaneity out of sex. This particular lively debate has cycled back around along with tartan skirts and Doc Martens; we’re still collectively unclear on the concept of consent. All things considered, I would say that 90’s kids are lucky that the voice of their generation was a man who loudly, angrily and publicly proclaimed that rape is a shitty thing that needs to be talked about and took a stand of solidarity with victims and declared himself a proud feminist. Ironically, or perhaps not, he also felt used and violated in his role as a public figure to such a degree that he was unable to go on living. It’s unfortunate that sometimes the best role models are the people least suited to that role.
Remember the name Samuel T. Herring. He may not look like much, but with his group Future Islands, he’s making pop music rapturous again. The phrase “80’s-style synthpop” may be a worn and tired calling card at this point, and “80’s-style synthpop meets gospel” may not sound much better, but bear with me. Future Islands is the best – and only -synthgospel group in the world; they will make you wish synthgospel was an actual thing instead of a portmanteau that I just made up. Seriously, though, this guy has the most amazing voice. He looks like Kevin Spacey’s less-traditionally-handsome hick cousin, but he sings like an angel. An angel whose voice breaks on the high notes because he smokes a pack a day and otherwise lives a hard lifestyle. In fact, Herring’s distinctive vocal crackle is a result of a medical condition called Reinke’s edema, in which the vocal cords fill up with fluid. He’s one of those rare performers who actually became a better singer as a result of smoking and other ‘chronic misuses’ of the vocal chords. I didn’t initially make the comparison, but I’m struck by it; if Future Islands sounds like any specific thing, it’s Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English. It’s elevating, propulsive synth music turned to intensely emotional ends, a weird chimera of sparkle and darkness.
(photo by John Hatfield)
Let’s celebrate a few wholesome all-American pleasures: cars, arena rock, sax solos, football, the Italian mafia, late night talk shows, denim, HBO, New Jersey. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are emblematic of all those things and more. So forget your poverty and crippling depression for a while. Take a load off and do what Working Class Joe’s have done since time immemorial; go out drinking in your car on the weekend. Take the car downtown to go drinking. Go drinking and pick up girls downtown in your car. Cash your paycheck, pick up your baby and go downtown in your car. Drinking. Downtown. On the Weekend. In your car. With your girl. Or something. I have no idea, actually. I think Bruce Springsteen wants you to drink and drive. Nothing more wholesome and All-American than drinking and driving. You should go do that.
If you haven’t heard of or don’t remember Cat Power, just note that today’s music scene owes her a lot. Seventeen years ago she pretty much singlehandedly started the trend of feminizing manly rock songs, thus paving the way for acts like Nouvelle Vague and everybody and their dog’s covers album. In 2000 a girl with a breathy voice covering (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction – without the chorus! Sacrebleu! – was both a novelty and a sacrilege. Now every cock rock anthem is ripe to be reinterpreted as a female lament. Personally, I love this trend. This is one trend I can get behind. Obviously, that’s partly because I love unexpected covers. Every sacred cow needs to be seen with fresh eyes (so to speak) every once in a while, even if the results aren’t necessarily spectacular. I also love that women’s perspectives have come to the forefront in pop music, and co-opting classic male tropes is a particularly cheeky aspect of that movement. Cat Power isn’t about to make me set aside my feelings for The Rolling Stones, and she isn’t going to make anyone forget Hank Williams either. That isn’t the point. The point of these covers is twofold. First of all, these tropes are as old as time; Hank Williams didn’t invent the idea of the rambling man, the rambling man has been a character in the popular imagination for centuries before Hank Williams came along. These tropes are tired because they’ve been repeated over and over by same kinds of people – men in cowboy hats, men with electric guitars, men with mandolins, angry young men with long hair – turning themselves and their stories into cliches. But the second part of what makes a smart cover relevant is the reminder that these tropes that we’re so used to are bigger than the artists that perform them. Underneath the cliches are stories and ideas that have hung on because they’re universal. They don’t have to be told by men in cowboy hats, they can be told by anyone. Is the cover as good or as important as the original? No, and it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes removing the specificity of expected context is necessary to make a piece of art fresh again, to remind us why it’s art and why we cared about it in the first place.
Raise a pint to the stupidly nerdly. Led Zeppelin are demigods of cock rock and all that, but their nerdiness is just so endearing, it’s adorable and squee. Their Tolkien references are so self-conscious and off-base; they’re not even good nerds. I understand that if you happen to be Robert Plant, then yes, you could reasonably expect to be picking up chicks in the darkest depths of Mordor, but it’s not canon, Robert, not canon. You just have to trowel those references in where they don’t fit at all, because why, to show that you know how to read? Honestly, though, I’ll take “Middle Earth the Led Zeppelin edition” quite happily; it’s a sexier place than the original.