Team Dresch – “Personal Best”

Right now, maybe the biggest story here in Minnesota is over a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution that would limit marriage to a man and a woman. My school recently came out as “neutral” regarding the amendment, a non-stance that infuriated a good chunk of the student body and has led to endless debate on various Facebook pages.  I don’t intend to get into a huge rant about this issue here, but the continued fight for LGBT (and all those other letters) rights reminded me of Team Dresch, and their 1995 album Personal Best — an album that captured so many of these hot-button issues back in the mid-90’s and still feels fresh today because of it.

Part of the greatness of “Personal Best” is that it offered a point-of-view that is exceedingly rare in music, especially rock music. Every member of Team Dresch was openly lesbian, something that deeply affected their songwriting. Like most Riot Grrrl albums, Personal Best focuses frequently on women’s issues, but it also expands into other LGBT-related subject matter that stands out because so few songs are written about it. No canonized dude-rock band has ever made a song like “Freewheel,” which focuses on a girl/girl relationship and includes the kiss-off line “go back to your boyfriend.”

Due to the makeup of the band and the songs themselves, Personal Best feels like one of the truest punk albums out there, an authentic collection of anthems for outsiders and the disenfranchised. And, like most of the music from the Riot Grrrl movement, it oozes passion and intensity in every note. It has that feeling of music that was made because it had to be heard and it has something important to say, not because the band felt like throwing together some songs or wanted to cash a paycheck.

This is most apparent on “She’s Amazing,” one of the most inspiring and vital songs to come out of the Riot Grrrl movement. Dedicated to an outspoken female role model (there’s another subject not seen in many rock songs), it could easily apply to the entire movement itself, which was full of outspoken members that “many people will try to destroy.” On a similar note, “1 Chance Pirate TV” turns the Sinead O’Connor SNL incident into one of the album’s most memorable songs, as it sprints out of the gate with an angry punk guitar riff before slowing down into a tone of resigned acceptance with the refrain “sometimes it feels alright.” Elsewhere, the band targets the Christian right on the appropriately titled “Hate the Christian Right!”

Personal Best has 10 songs that zip by in just 24 minutes, but it leaves a significant impression. It’s punk at its best, combining the personal and political, inspiration and outrage, and bringing it all together with good old fashioned quality songwriting. From start to finish, it holds up as arguably the strongest album of the Riot Grrrl movement, and it feels more important now than ever. In many ways, it feels like the soundtrack to a revolution that is now in full swing.

The xx — “Coexist”

The xx’s self-titled debut seemed to come out of nowhere in 2009. It was an album that sounded like nothing else at the time and displayed a very young band that had a shockingly developed sound, making use of minimalist electronics and space to create perfect late-night soundscapes. But all those elements that made it great also made it age poorly for me: after burning through it that year with seemingly hundreds of listens, I’ve rarely revisited it in the last couple of years. Once that out-of-nowhere element of surprise was gone, I became sick of the album’s sound and found that there was little to it beyond the surface.

Nonetheless, I was interested to hear their new album Coexist, because I still remember that feeling of first discovering their debut. I also think it’s a fascinating case study in how a young band tries to live up to massive expectations after such a successful first album — especially one like The xx, who carved out such a specific, well-defined niche that it seemed like there may not even be anything left to explore. I was curious if they would expand their sound, change their songwriting style, or pull any other tricks to separate this from their debut.

But in the back of my head, I pretty much knew what Coexist was going to be, and that’s what makes it so disappointing. It’s not that it’s horrible or something: if you liked the first album, chances are you’ll like this one. But that’s also kind of the problem. While most artists I really respect throw curveballs at their audience, Coexist is a lazy softball right down the middle. It’s the musical equivalent of a “meets expectations” grade in elementary school. It does everything that you expect it to — no more, no less — and then kind of evaporates after you listen to it, completely failing to leave any sort of impression.

At least those were my initial thoughts, but I have a habit of unhealthily analyzing my own opinions. And I thought: “what the hell did I expect?” It’s not like The xx were going to release a prog-metal psychedelic rock opera or an album of acoustic ukulele folk songs. This is just what they do. And if I liked what they did before (at least for a time), why wouldn’t I now? Am I so starved for experimentation and change that I can’t just enjoy music for what it is?

That may be the case, but I also think the songs on Coexist just aren’t as good as they were on the debut. Nothing on it is nearly as memorable as “VCR” or “Crystalised,” which had legitimate hooks to go with the band’s spare music. The exception is opening track “Angels,” a beautiful song by Romy Madley-Croft that is actually more minimal than anything on the debut but still manages to make a pretty big impact. The rest of the album just feels like The xx is trapped in the tiny musical world they created on the debut, with all the hushed male-female vocals and samey lyrics about love. (“Reunion” sounds kind of like what an xx parody band would come up with if such a horrible, misguided idea ever came into existence.) They make an effort to occasionally incorporate some dance beats, but they never quite gel with the music. Jamie Smith’s production is slick as usual, but most of the album feels underwritten in a way that the debut managed to avoid despite its bare-bones style.

The good news for The xx is that they’re still young and talented. Also, they’re already much more successful than I will ever be at anything I do in my life. And who knows, maybe Coexist appeals to their die-hard fans who want to hear more of the same stuff instead of someone like me, who always loves it when artists change up their sound and actively antagonize their core audience. Still, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone really being blown away by Coexist when it’s so similar to what they’ve already heard before.