One of my favorite albums from 2016 was Free Cake For Every Creature’s Talking Quietly of Anything With You, a charming little 22-minute home recording that was a welcome throwback to heart-on-your-sleeve indie pop artists like Rose Melberg. Katie Bennett’s band is back with The Bluest Star, which expands on her songwriting vision while maintaining its winning, genuine appeal.
“Genuine” is the word I always come back to with Free Cake, and it’s a bit of a subjective thing that not everyone even cares about. When I listen to Bennett’s music, I feel like she believes everything that she says and it’s coming from a real place. This isn’t just because it’s lo-fi home recorded music, but because of how she writes and performs: her lyrics are peppered with little details that help insert the listener into her world, and she sings them as if she’s whispering secrets in your ear.
Compared to the brevity of her last album, The Bluest Star almost feels sprawling with its 14 songs and 38 minutes. It mostly stays true to the style she established on previous efforts, but the extra space lets Bennett develop something of a universe of her own, complete with a roster of rich characters and small moments of pathos. While not strictly connected in a single linear story, there is a sense of a narrative woven together by all of the songs, which look back on long car rides, romances, and friendships.
While many artists focus on small details in their lyrics, Bennett likes to look at the littler things within the little things. “Be Home Soon” is about a ride home from work and starts with a perfect character moment: “eating Clementines on the subway/put the peels on my blue jeans.” Another highlight, “Sunday Afternoon,” needs fewer words to describe a perfect lazy day where she is “washed in the nothing, happily.” Those blissful songs are matched by sadder tunes like “Goodbye, Unsilently” which describe the other end of friendships as they fade away.
The focus on smallness also applies to the music, which is mostly a humble mix of reverbed guitar and light percussion (as well as that nice banjo part on “In Your Car”). It isn’t overly ambitious, but it is another step forward for Bennett, who has found the right sound to showcase her lyrics instead of burying them beneath a bunch of musical tricks. Everything in her music just fits together really well, and it’s why The Bluest Star feels so honest and real compared to a lot of contemporary indie pop.
For as long as I’ve been interested in music, Nickelback have been a punching bag for people who want to feel superior in their taste to others. Part of this makes sense: Nickelback are a very bad band who make atrocious music that deserves to be mocked at every turn, yet are irritatingly popular, making them an easy target and emblematic of Everything That is Wrong With Music. On the other hand, I started to almost feel bad for Chad Kroeger and co., who have never really professed to being more than a dumb rock band that makes big loud noises for people who don’t really want to engage with music on a deeply intellectual level.
The way I see it, there are a lot of awful bands deserving of mockery out there, and Nickelback’s crimes against music don’t really rate to me. It’s easy for me to just not pay attention to Nickelback, but there are bands who I don’t think are much better who are often shoved in my face as an example of “real music.” One of these is The Black Keys, and their drummer Patrick Carney went off on Nickelback in a Rolling Stone story a couple years ago:
Rock & roll is dying because people became OK with Nickelback being the biggest band in the world… So they became OK with the idea that the biggest rock band in the world is always going to be shit – therefore you should never try to be the biggest rock band in the world. Fuck that! Rock & roll is the music I feel the most passionately about, and I don’t like to see it fucking ruined and spoon-fed down our throats in this watered-down, post-grunge crap, horrendous shit. When people start lumping us into that kind of shit, it’s like, ‘Fuck you,’ honestly.
You can hear the superiority and condescension coming from this guy whose band is a fourth-rate White Stripes knockoff. The Black Keys have every bit of Nickelback’s cynicism and lack of originality while sounding even worse. Every song is like one garbage guitar riff played 100 times in a row. And yet he has the temerity to classify his band as “real rock and roll” — this is what is worthy of scorn, not Nickelback minding their own business with their crummy rock music (thanks for your contributions to the Bojack Horseman soundtrack, though).
He does make a decent point about post-grunge, which is like the Mariana Trench of music — it goes lower than humans can possibly fathom, and at the very bottom there are hideous things that we can’t even comprehend (Hinder’s “Lips of an Angel” comes to mind). But within this foul genre of music, Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” holds up as a landmark work that is perfection of a specific aesthetic, much in the way that Loveless and Pet Sounds are.
The style of “How You Remind Me” happens to be one that I don’t really enjoy — this grunty, faux-masculine, whiny brand of rock where every element of the music sounds like it’s been run through a garbage disposal. I prefer listening to women sing about dreams. At the same time, I’m a man who can appreciate the very best of a specific thing, and “How You Remind Me” is indisputably Nickelback’s magnum opus and the high-point of this type of rock music. While the rest of post-grunge is truly offensive and makes one wonder how centuries of human evolution reached this point, “How You Remind Me” reaches the level of being borderline tolerable.
“How You Remind Me,” is, at its core, a song about not wanting to be reminded of who you really are. Its lyrics are a key part of its success because of their relatability: who among us hasn’t cut it as a wise man or as a poor man stealing? Kroeger’s goat-like voice conveys a man who has reached rock bottom and has nothing left to lose. The repeated lyric, “are we having fun yet?,” asks a potent question to the listener, who is left to decide for themselves whether or not Kroeger is, in fact, having fun yet. I personally think he isn’t, but the beauty of “How You Remind Me” is in its ambiguity.
The song’s sound is a bracing mix of many varied influences: Pearl Jam, Pearl Jam, Eddie Vedder, and also Pearl Jam. It’s loud in a way that is typically associated with rock music, but the guitar sound lacks any kind of edge or meaning. This emptiness is, intentionally or unintentionally, a vital part of its status as the definitive crappy adolescent post-grunge song. It captures a certain angsty youthful state where you have extreme feelings and frustrations that feel real in the moment but are really just idiotic and pointless. It spawned many imitators, but none were ever able to do it this well, partly because Nickelback have an undeniable ability to craft a hook or they never would have gotten on the radio.
Am I saying that “How You Remind Me” is the greatest song of all time? Of course not. I think The Beatles have a few songs that are better, and others would point to songs by The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Mozart, etc. But I maintain that it is a perfect song in the sense that it achieves everything it is trying to do. It has a certain bleakness and impotence that makes it the quintessential post-grunge song, ahead of even Scott Stapp’s impressive body of work. I don’t quite classify it as “so bad it’s good” — more like it’s so good at being bad.