Field Mouse’s “Meaning” Sounds Sweet and Hits Hard

“When I get older, will I remember saying this?” Rachel Browne sings repeatedly at the end of “Plague No. 8,” one of the highlights from Field Mouse’s latest album,  Meaning. Confidence is so prized in artists — and people in general — that it’s refreshing to hear a song that deals frankly with uncertainty and doubt, especially about the process of creating the art itself. Almost anyone who has made anything, from a novel to an album to a random blog post, has asked the same question about if there’s any point to it, especially in the social media era where it feels like so much quality work reverberates in an echo chamber and then disappears.

The theme runs throughout Meaning, which contains a level of introspection that is rare and ultimately relatable and endearing. On “Birthday Song,” Browne’s existential crisis continues: “am I gonna make anything that outlives me?” she asks. This clearly comes from real life, and Browne had questioned whether she even wanted to make another album. She’s poured all of those frustrations and fear into her music, and it’s made Meaning into an album that hits surprisingly hard.

The surprising part is because Field Mouse, like the animal they’re named for, are a bit quiet and unassuming. Their songs are unabashedly pretty and catchy, with pleasant guitar parts from Andrew Futral and Browne’s sugary vocals, which are a pop hook in and of themselves. It’s a type of lighter, slightly noisy pop rock that feels more like something from the 90s, when bands like Velocity Girl, Tiger Trap, and Sarge were on the scene. I try not to turn everything into a meta-narrative about who’s “underrated,” but my experience is that music writers tend to undervalue bands like this for whatever reason, probably because it’s not considered cool to write catchy, sweet pop songs that show too much emotion and heart. (See also: Free Cake For Every Creature.)

Meaning plays off the presumptions people might have about their inoffensive sound, luring the listener in with its pop songwriting and then hitting them in the face with Browne’s lyrics. Part of it is how the album is sequenced: it kicks off with “Heart of Gold,” a breezier, more straight-ahead single, then gets gradually darker, with each song raising more questions and fears until it gets to “Plague No. 8” as the penultimate track with the opening lyrics “locusts swarm my body; think they sense a dream dying.” It’s the stand-out song on this album and one of the strongest of the year, a reflection on getting older and wondering if you’ll reach your potential that hits maybe too close to home for me.

Meaning never feels quite as dark as it is because of the sound and Browne’s voice, so it’s an album that ended up sneaking up on me. It’s a great example of how pop songwriting can enhance an album’s storytelling: these songs are all memorable and catchy and when they got stuck in my head, it made me start thinking more about Browne’s lyrics, which are timely and poignant. Despite all of her fears and anxieties, Field Mouse have made an album that deserves to be remembered.

Bury Our Friends: On the New Sleater-Kinney and Being a Fan

When I last checked in on Sleater-Kinney, my once-favorite band, I despised their single “The Future is Here” and had pretty much divested myself emotionally from their new album, the ironically-titled The Center Won’t Hold. Since then, the band has embarked on one of the oddest, most comically disastrous album hype cycles in memory: they had a boring performance on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon after which longtime drummer Janet Weiss quit the band, citing the obvious “change in direction” I pointed out, leaving Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker to promote the album themselves. They’ve spent the last three weeks grimacing while giving “no really, this album is great, we totally love it” interviews while the release date lurked ahead like an oncoming apocalypse.

Now that the future actually is here, it’s hard for the music to live up to all of the drama and speculation surrounding its release. In the end, The Center Won’t Hold is what I expected from the early singles: it’s poppy, corny, and probably the most disappointing album I’ve ever heard given how big a fan I was of all the people involved.

But before I bury this thing and pretend it never happened, I want to clear up some of the spin I’ve seen from other fans and writers. Disliking this musical direction does not make someone a misogynist or a bad fan. It’s insulting to the members of Sleater-Kinney, who are grown women who have been in the arts scene for over two decades, to uncritically pretend their art is great and to attribute any criticism to sexism as if they’re children who can’t take the heat. Given Weiss’ departure, I also think it’s outright delusional to pretend everything went great here. If some fans do like this album, then all power to them — but they must have been enjoying Sleater-Kinney for much different reasons than I did.

What made Sleater-Kinney a great band was that every song felt like it mattered to them and it gave their music a sense of urgency and originality. Most of the credit for that goes to Weiss and Tucker — Weiss’ thundering drums added a level of intensity to every song and Tucker had a voice like no one else’s, a sort of banshee wail that filled the room and jolted any listener to pay attention. Brownstein was never a third wheel by any means and is a great guitarist, but the Tucker/Weiss core is what defined Sleater-Kinney to me and was the backbone of most of my favorite songs by them.

There are a lot of theories on what is going on with The Center Won’t Hold that caused the new sound and look and the eventual departure of Weiss. Let’s just say that anyone who speculated that it was a result of Brownstein bigfooting the band will feel vindicated by this record. She is by far the most prominent member on this album, taking a frontwoman role on most songs while Tucker is left in the background and Weiss barely even registers. This is part of why The Center Won’t Hold barely sounds like Sleater-Kinney — Brownstein, as talented as she is, was never the reason people listened to this band, but she seems to think that’s the case. The unique group dynamic and chemistry is totally missing here with little interplay between Brownstein and Tucker and uninspiring drum parts for Weiss. This isn’t the band evolving or growing; it’s the band becoming something entirely different, something decidedly lamer and less interesting to listen to.

If someone is a fan of Metallica, it’s probably because they play those crushing metal riffs that can fill an arena. If Metallica became a solo Lars Ulrich project where he played the accordion, their fans would stop enjoying the band because it would lack the qualities that made them fans in the first place. People wouldn’t say “I guess those Metallica fans just hate change because they’re not down with this Lars Ulrich accordion album.” My dislike here isn’t out of nostalgia for the good old days. I wanted Sleater-Kinney to change things up, to try new things and push the boundaries, like they did on The Woods. That’s part of what made them a great band. But this album does not fit into that framework because it doesn’t even feel like Sleater-Kinney anymore.

I suppose to some people fandom is this ride-or-die thing where you have to support everything the artists do. And I do think fandom is more than purely transactional — you gain a respect and admiration for the artists over time and want to support them even when their work isn’t connecting with you like it once did. But it’s also up to the band to meet the expectations of the fans, who have grown attached to their work being a certain way, and I imagine one of the great difficulties of being in a band is figuring out how far to stretch those expectations before reaching a breaking point for some listeners.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that the members of Sleater-Kinney had to know the cost of doing business with this album, and so I don’t feel particularly bad that I hate it. I think they knew this would upset some “purist” fans and were prepared for this outcome. But let’s clear up another thing: I’m not even opposed to the idea of Sleater-Kinney making a poppier album, and I like pop music a lot more than most people I know. The problem is that these aren’t very good pop songs. What ultimately is most alienating about the album is that it lacks any sense of vitality or purpose, the traits that used to define Sleater-Kinney. Usually when a band enters into a new musical space, it energizes them (like it did on The Woods), but everything here feels flat. A lot of this comes down to the sound and production by Annie Clark, which has buried the band’s intensity and emotions under a layer of glossy sheen.

This album still has its moments, usually involving Corin, like “Reach Out” and “Ruins,” but even on those, I often find myself fighting to enjoy the band through the production and gimmickry. The new style also doesn’t really fit their lyrics, which admittedly were never amazing, but usually the band was kicking so much ass that I could look past the occasional awkward line. Now the heavy-handed lyricism is very noticeable and it drags down the songs, which already need all the help they can get since the sound is so generic and unengaging. “Can I Go On,” for example, pretty much sounds like children’s music or a commercial jingle. “Bad Dance” is another attempt at a Carrie-fronted dance-pop song that is trying so hard to be upbeat and zany that it’s embarrassing to listen to. The sing-along chorus on “The Dog/The Body” is sickeningly sweet, and one of the many moments where the band tips into being maudlin. The overall sense I get is that the band and Clark are putting in an inordinate amount of effort to try to make Sleater-Kinney sound like mediocre artists who could never make music as great as Dig Me OutOne Beat, or The Woods. Why one of the greatest bands of all-time would do this instead of being themselves is the vexing mystery of The Center Won’t Hold.

On “Entertain,” one of the highlights of The Woods, Brownstein mocked backwards-looking unoriginal bands with a venomous delivery:

You come around looking 1984
You’re such a bore, 1984!
You star child, well you’re using it like a whore!
It’s better than before, oh it’s better than before!
You come around sounding 1972
You did nothing new, 1972!
Where’s the ‘fuck you’?
Where’s the black and blue?
Where’s the black and blue?
Where’s the black and blue?
If your heart is done, Johnny get your gun!
Join the rank and file, on your TV dial
All of these criticisms can now be applied to The Center Won’t Hold and it’s part of why it’s so dismaying: a group that once stood for defiant, individual rock music has become another in a sea of generic pop-aspiring bands. Sleater-Kinney was never about riding waves or trying to be trendy, but that’s what this album feels like more than anything else. Worst of all, it’s not even all that good at doing the bad thing they were trying to do. The harsh reality is that this album isn’t even a particularly fascinating blow-up — this beloved band came undone over some forgettable pop songs.

There is No Point in Writing About This Ex Hex Album I Wrote About

An album like Ex Hex’s latest, It’s Real, requires very deep thought and consideration. To truly understand it, one must have a firm grasp on music theory and history, not to mention the ability to understand the sophisticated layers of meaning within every note the band plays. With all that said, I’ve put a lot of thought into this and feel that I’m up to the task of explaining this album’s unique appeal: it it has rock and roll songs that sound good, and I enjoy listening to them.

This is the second album for Mary Timony’s project, following 2014’s Rips, and there is something weirdly satisfying about how little the band has changed between albums. It’s Real scoffs at the notion of bands “making a statement” or “breaking through” and is content to simply entertain on its own terms without necessarily sparking an array of thinkpieces and discussion. While I’m certainly someone who enjoys albums that require some effort to get into, there is also a place for an album like this that only asks you to turn the volume up and your brain off.

There isn’t really a point in analyzing the songs, which are all in a similar vein of having catchy guitar riffs, melodies, and lyrics that focus on basic themes of having a good time with some slight psychedelic undertones, mostly from Timony’s patented head-in-the-clouds singing. Betsy Wright also takes lead on a couple of the strongest songs, the tough rocker “Rainbow Shiner” and the breezier “Radiate.” I truly intend to be complimentary when I say that this is not music that is really improved upon by intense lyrical breakdowns and deconstructions of its sound. Listening to it does not make you desire to read about it, which I suppose calls into question this entire exercise.

What is maybe worth analyzing is how It’s Real functions as an argument in favor of musicians with experience. Timony has been making indie rock for over 25 years now and this album has an effortless quality where it feels like she’s just writing great pop songs in her sleep. She has already done everything that today’s young indie rock bands are trying to do — she had her great angsty rock albums, her more sophisticated “break-out” albums, and her alienating artsy albums. Now with all that experience behind her, she doesn’t feel a need to impress anyone or prove herself, and I think that energy is part of what makes Ex Hex a refreshing band right now. It’s Real has strengthened her case as the indie rock GOAT, not that she cares about trying to convince anyone.

The Legacy of Trish Keenan: Curiouser and Curiouser

I’ve mentioned a few times how Broadcast had one of the most satisfying arcs of any band I’m a fan of, which ties into the somewhat nebulous concept of a band “progressing” from album to album. At the root of this desire to evolve as a band, there has to be some element of dissatisfaction with their previous output, even if it is material as good as The Noise Made By People and Haha Sound. Initially, it was jarring to look up old interviews with Trish Keenan around the release of Tender Buttons and see her dismiss albums I think are so great. “We always wear our references too much on our sleeves,” she said prior to the release of this album. “We needed to do something that was more us, other than in the shadow of all the 60s bands.”

On Tender Buttons, Broadcast shed away all of the excess references and inspirations that defined a lot of their previous music and presented the most distilled version of themselves. While minimalist in construction, the new duo set-up brings out more of Keenan herself, and this feels like her most personal work with the most heart of any Broadcast album. It’s also yet another lesson in how simplicity in music can bring out the most complex emotions.

Keenan’s lyrics on the album were the result of “automatic writing,” a supernatural or spiritual concept that I probably wouldn’t believe in if anyone else claimed it was legitimate, but who am I to argue with Trish. “They are my free falling thoughts,” she said of the lyrics. “I believe that words have their own life; that if you throw words together, they naturally make sense. Language just wants to be understood.” The songs fit Keenan’s description and are built around seemingly random phrases and repetition that are left to be figured out by the listener. This style is my favorite part of Tender Buttons; it feels more human and natural than traditional lyricism, which is so often built around artifice in terms of contrived rhyming schemes and ham-fisted “meaning.” It takes a kind of humble brilliance to let the words form their own meaning for the listener organically instead of using your music to tell people how they should feel, and I’m increasingly convinced this is a key part of Broadcast’s timeless appeal.

The automatic writing is part of what makes the album more overtly spooky as Keenan and Cargill became more fascinated with supernatural and ghostly themes that would partially define the band’s later work. “Black Cat” is built around the titular image, which is a staple of scary kid’s stories and superstitions, along with phrases that contain little nuggets of meaning: “curiouser and curiouser,” “awkwardness happening to someone you love,” “shadowing masonic verve.” Keenan’s voice is less sing-songy than before; at times she is closer to speaking than singing, which is part of why the atmosphere is more frigid and unsettling compared to their previous style. I find Tender Buttons to be their most difficult album to get into for that reason, but eventually the humanity and sense of wonder in Broadcast’s music shines through, even in the new setting.

In typical Broadcast fashion, the songs here combine eeriness and warmth in a way that I’m not sure any other artist has done at this level. Some of their most affecting songs are on Tender Buttons: “Tears in the Typing Tool” is a spare ballad Keenan sang for her father, who was dying of a terminal illness. A personal favorite is “Corporeal,” which has an addictive motorik groove and lyrics that connect a lot of Broadcast’s most resonant themes for me, in particular the merging of humanity and technology. I also am always moved by the simple instrumental closing track, “I Found the End,” which has gained a deeper meaning through Keenan’s death and feels like the end of an era for the band as the closing to their last traditional pop album.

While this is nothing close to as playful as Haha Sound, there are some more upbeat tracks on the back half that play off the delightful absurdity of Keenan’s lyrics. “Michael A Grammar” is Broadcast’s version of a danceable pop song; Keenan fittingly sings “my feet are dancing so much and I hate that.” “Goodbye Girls” was inspired by prostitution, but its bouncy sound helps put a positive, empathetic spin on a subject that is rarely portrayed with any depth in art. It’s another small example of how Keenan added so much humanity to these songs.

Tender Buttons, like Haha Sound before it, shows how a band can evolve and grow while still being true to themselves. Even with the sounds changing so much on each album, Keenan’s singing, lyrics, and presence gave the band a foundation that carried through in everything they made. On this album, she proved that she only needed her voice and the most minimal instrumentation to make some of the most creative and enduring pop songs ever made.

The Real Angel Olsen Has Arrived

As someone who does the whole “having critical opinions about music” thing, I often find myself forming backseat ideas of where artists I feel have potential should go with their work. I’m sure all fans do this on some level, where they form expectations for upcoming releases and hope it lives up to them. But I don’t know if people who aren’t deep into this music criticism hole can fully appreciate how satisfying it is when an artist does exactly what you hoped they would.

Angel Olsen has done that on her new single, “All Mirrors,” which is my favorite song of the year by some margin, to the point that I’m listening to it almost non-stop, and when I’m doing anything else I’m thinking “I wish I was listening to ‘All Mirrors’ right now.” This is one of those perfect songs where the artist finally figures out who she is (or at least who I want her to be, which works all the same in my book).

I’m not a big fan of folk/alt country music, so I wasn’t too interested in Olsen’s acclaimed early albums. It wasn’t until her last album, My Woman, that I thought she showed how much talent and charisma she has, particularly on songs like “Shut Up Kiss Me” and its psychedelic centerpiece, “Sister.” On her new single, she’s ditched the guitars entirely and gone full-blown dramatic synth goth. It’s a breathtaking song and video that warrants comparisons to the heavy-hitters of this style of large-scale pop: Kate Bush and Björk (especially the Homogenic and Vulnicura eras). But Olsen’s voice is distinctive enough that it doesn’t feel like she’s copying anyone — this sound is hers more than any of her previous material.

It’s funny that this comes on the heels of that Sleater-Kinney song, where the band went synth and it didn’t fit any of them and made no sense. Whereas on this song, Olsen is exactly where she should be. Her voice sounds better than it ever has in this setting and her lyrics are actually more impactful when surrounded by the cinematic synths, beats, and strings. I’m not one to comment on artists’ appearances much, but I also feel a certain journalistic responsibility to point out that she looks like a god in this video, which has kind of a Sunset Boulevard vibe when combined with the lyrics about “losing beauty.” Every element of this just fits and if this represents the direction of her next album, I am very excited.

Something that has always bothered me about the discourse surrounding folk music is this assumption that artists who only play a guitar and whisper in their songs convey more authenticity and emotion than artists who go for bigger, more dramatic sounds. There are already plenty of counterpoints to that, but this song proves that Olsen’s music is more powerful and real than ever, even as she leaves that style in the dust.

Sarah McLachlan is Cool

I have a bit of an affinity for artists who are uncool, which might be why I’ve been thinking about Sarah McLachlan lately. McLachlan meets almost all the criteria required to be a vastly uncool artist: she’s a woman who sings slow, serious, feelingsy music that sounds like something your mom would listen to, she’s popular even though it’s impossible to find anyone who owns her albums, and her all-women’s festival from the late-90s, Lilith Fair, is now associated more with embarrassing Clinton-era white feminism than the current hip progressive movement. I’m guessing most people my age know her most for her appearance in those viewer-shaming ASPCA ads where her extremely sappy song “Angel” plays to shots of depressed dogs.

Due to that uncoolness, I don’t think I’ve seen a single artist I listen to mention McLachlan as an inspiration for their work, even though a lot of current indie music has more in common with her than they want to admit. I started thinking about this when I was really into Emma Ruth Rundle’s Marked For Death album in 2016. When trying to think of who Rundle reminded me of, for some reason McLachlan’s name popped in my mind. They probably have nearly no similarities in terms of background or actual influence, but I thought Rundle’s slow-burn balladry wasn’t too far off from something McLachlan would have made if she had been into metal.

From there, I began to connect McLachlan’s reputation as a punch-line to other albums I felt were overlooked for committing similar crimes in terms of being earnest, feminine, and unexciting. Albums like Bat For Lashes’ The Bride and Mary Timony’s Mountains suddenly started to feel more closely linked to McLachlan than I would have guessed. And I began to wonder if, beyond all the cultural baggage, there was something worth exploring here, which led me to try actually listening to more of her music than just the three or four songs everyone knows from the radio.

Listening to her two most popular albums, 1993’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy and 1997’s Surfacing, confirmed a lot of what I suspected. It’s not amazing music to me by any means because sonically it’s about as adventurous as a trip to the post office. But there were also some surprises: for one, McLachlan has more of an edge than I assumed from just hearing songs like “Angel” and “I Will Remember You.” Her lyrics are smart and have an actual bite to them a lot of the time, and while her songs skew towards ballads, there was also a lot that didn’t sound too different from current indie folk. She was also capable of writing undeniable singles like “Possession” and one of the biggest jams of the 90s, “Building a Mystery.”

What stuck out most, though, was just the way McLachlan sings, with so much sincerity, emotion and conviction. Obviously it can be considered sappy or maudlin, but I found there to be a genuineness in her songs and their construction compared to most music at similar levels of popularity. Its commercial viability seems more like a coincidence than anything — the feeling I got was that McLachlan just made her music and it happened to connect with listeners. It doesn’t have the sense of calculation that ruins so much poppy music for me.

Obviously McLachlan didn’t invent being a woman who sings about feelings, but I think the success of her music and the concept of Lilith Fair helped make it feel more normal. When I grew up, I just heard songs by McLachlan on the radio without ever seeking them out. I’m guessing a lot of current artists also did, and even if they’re not actively listening to McLachlan and citing her as an influence, her mere existence probably paved the way for many who grew up hearing that voice playing on the radio or in supermarkets.

One of the best developments in the last few years of indie has been a boom in women singer-songwriters, who are getting more acclaim and support than ever before. The funny thing is that a ton of them sing like McLachlan, and some even make music that overtly sounds like hers. An artist like Weyes Blood, whose excellent album Titanic Rising is the most acclaimed of the year thus far, is basically making adult contemporary for the indie set. Maybe McLachlan’s style has finally come around to being cool.

There is some comedic value in reading artists and writers totally dance around mentioning McLachlan because her music is so associated with being lame. I’m as guilty of it as anyone: if I saw an artist on Bandcamp saying they were influenced by McLachlan, I’d probably assume it was some soft pop nonsense that’s “not for me.” But then I’ll write about artists like Weyes Blood and how amazing they are without even considering the hypocrisy.

This all leads me to believe that McLachlan is the victim of typical garbage narratives surrounding gender and coolness. Similar to how many dismiss “chick flicks,” this music gets a bad rap because it has an appeal to an audience that has been deemed to be less worthy or important. Meanwhile, the same people who scoff at her are probably listening to man-in-a-cabin folk and indie-approved feminine soft pop without even realizing the similarities. With so many acclaimed artists working in a similar space, McLachlan is overdue for some credit.

I Wish This New Sleater-Kinney Song Wasn’t Crappy

The act of reuniting your band is inherently sort of pathetic. Even if it’s done for reasons other than shameless cash-grabbing, it’s often an attempt by the members to recapture their glory years, like a popular kid returning to high school years later. Maybe the saddest part of some reunions is that one often gets the sense that the artists involved could be doing something new and cool, but instead they’re stuck acting as old versions of themselves, playing the same songs because they felt a need to give in to fans who always want more.

I know all of this, but when Sleater-Kinney reunited, I convinced myself this would be different. I ignored some of the obvious warning signs, like Carrie Brownstein’s burgeoning career of making hipster jokes on Portlandia and appearing in American Express commercials. When their reunion album dropped, I wanted it to be great more than anything, but after a couple listens I knew it wasn’t. I figured it was their first album back and maybe they just needed to get back in the swing of things.

Now they have a new album coming out produced by Annie Clark, which would have been my dream about ten years ago, but now feels like a worst case scenario for all people involved. The latest song, “The Future is Here,” confirmed all of my worst suspicions about this project: it’s a trainwreck that I’ll use as exhibit A when I argue for making band reunions illegal in front of the Supreme Court.

About the only positive thing I can say about this track is that the band tried something different rather than rehashing their old music, and I think it came from a place of wanting to push themselves artistically. But what they’ve done is take everything that made Sleater-Kinney cool and unique and replaced it with boring, generic sounds. This isn’t Bob Dylan going electric; this is like if Kevin Shields followed up Loveless with an album of acoustic Imagine Dragons covers.

The twin guitars and harmonies of Corin Tucker and Brownstein are absent here, replaced by some stale synths that make the song sound like a mid-2000s Yeah Yeah Yeahs album track. The other vital element of Sleater-Kinney’s music has always been Janet Weiss’ drumming — the urgency and intensity of the band’s sound came through in her aggressive style, which conveyed a sense of passion, like the song you were listening to really mattered. On this song, she’s marginalized to just playing a simple, lifeless drum beat, which renders the entire song limp and purposeless. The lyrics don’t exactly help either — it’s not like S-K were ever masters of subtlety, but the “actually, iPhones are bad” theme doesn’t inspire a lot of deep thought, which might be why half the song is spent on “na na na”s.

I’m trying to mentally picture what happened in this recording session. Clearly the band wanted to push themselves in new directions and Annie Clark was happy to oblige. I was critical of Clark’s last album, which I thought pursued a generic, soulless pop vision that prioritized superficial gimmickry over real artistry. Now it appears S-K has been caught in her vortex of making corny, instantly dated pop. The album cover has the image of Brownstein with her backwards butt exposed, which is an image that feels inspired by Clark’s recent propensity towards contrived, phony “weirdness.” My best guess is the band and Clark were shooting for some poppy-but-deep artsy thing, but they really did not succeed on any level. It’s enough to make me lose faith in everyone involved, all of whom were at one point among my favorite artists in the world.

It had been awhile since I’d really listened to Sleater-Kinney, so I decided to throw on The Woods on my drive to work to see if maybe I had just outgrown the band. That would have been sad in its own way, but preferable to the reality this song presents. It turns out The Woods still kicks ass. Just listen to “The Fox” and compare it to this song. That album was the ultimate farewell, a band going out in a blaze of glory by unleashing every emotion they had left and leaving on top of their game. Instead, it’s become another cautionary example for future bands and their fans: sometimes its better to quit when you’re ahead.