Wild Flag

If you’ve been reading this blog from the beginning (which I can only hope you have been, for continuity reasons), you may have noticed that there’s been a distinct lack of actual new music on it.  This is sort of intentional:  While I’ve actually liked 2011 quite a bit and have been making a conscious effort to listen to a lot of new stuff, I still think that something has been missing from current music.  I’ve grown a bit jaded about how most of the hyped bands of the day all seem to chart the same influences, to be following the same basic formula, and constantly living in the past.

Enter Wild Flag, a four woman supergroup consisting of singer/guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney, Mary Timony from Helium and a solo career, and Rebecca Cole of the Minders.  Those names probably don’t mean a whole lot to many people reading this, but for me and many others its a dream collaboration, a veritable Traveling Wilburys of indie rock goddesses.  From day one, the band has had a massive amount of hype and expectations from rabid Sleater-Kinney fans, the kind like me who think rock music has been circling the drain since the band went on indefinite hiatus in 2006 following their colossal swan song, “The Woods.”

The expectations for Wild Flag are expected, but also unfair.  In reality, there’s no way the band could capture the unique chemistry and passion that defined Sleater-Kinney.  However, their debut album, which is streaming on NPR, is nonetheless an immensely satisfying collection of tunes that fills many of the gaps left empty by today’s indie kids.

See, Wild Flag make rock music.  Not “indie” rock or “noise” rock or whatever other lame qualifiers people seem to put in front of it now.  This is fun, energetic rock music that is never boring, and in today’s musical climate that qualifies as a revelation.  It doesn’t have the urgency of Sleater-Kinney or the dark combativeness of Helium; rather, it’s a pure, unpretentious showcase of everything that rock can offer from four women who know a lot about it.

A common knock on supergroups is that they’re more a collection of individuals than a cohesive band.  Wild Flag defies that, as they’re instantly able to craft a unique sound that separates themselves from their previous bands.  It’s a diverse collection of songs, from the almost power pop lead track and first single “Romance” to the woozy psychedelia of “Glass Tambourine”.  Brownstein and Timony mostly trade vocals and harmonies, and each brings a different energy to each song.

While the hype around Wild Flag has mostly surrounded the Sleater-Kinney semi-reunion, it’s actually Timony who may be the band’s MVP.  In the later days of Helium and the beginnings of her solo career, Timony flirted with being sort of an indie fantasy pixie girl, as she sang about magic and dragons and played quirky songs full of lush instrumentation.  She doesn’t do that on Wild Flag (although she does sneak a “dragonslayer” reference into “Electric Band”), but her more laid back, mystical qualities make a nice foil for Brownstein’s hyperactive wildness.  It’s illustrated on album closer “Black Tiles”, my favorite song so far, and the only one where they exchange lead vocals and put that duality on full display.  Both are also tremendously gifted guitar players and are able to rip a lot of memorable riffs and solos in each song.

Of course, Wild Flag is also anchored by Weiss, who continues to prove that she’s arguably the best rock drummer in music today.  I know absolutely nothing about drumming, but I can still tell that Weiss is really, really good at it, and she brings a ton of life to each song with her thunderous playing.  Rebecca Cole (who I’m mostly unfamiliar with) also gives the songs some extra bounce with her keyboards, which add an extra dimension that the group’s previous bands didn’t have.

In the end, Wild Flag meets their lofty expectations and provides an absolute treat for Sleater-Kinney fans like me that were too busy failing at life to get into them before they went on hiatus.  But beyond that, it’s possibly the most refreshing album of the year so far — a much needed shot of energy and life into the increasingly dull music landscape.

Life Without Buildings

Listening to Life Without Buildings for the first time was a thoroughly confusing experience.  On first listen, the band’s songs were hard to differentiate from one another and seemed like they were all over the place.  I also thought the singer might be mentally challenged and had no clue what she was babbling about.  Despite that, I was intrigued, so I made a mental note to revisit the band later.

So Life Without Buildings sat on my iPod, metaphorically gathering dust.  Occasionally I would scroll past them and try to remember who they were, then tell myself “oh yeah, the band with the weirdo singer” before I moved on to whatever I was going to listen to.  Then one day, I made a Facebook post about how I couldn’t get into Joanna Newsom despite my love of weirdo indie females, which reminded me of another weirdo indie female that I had forgotten about.

That weirdo singer was Sue Tompkins, a painter and sound artist from Glasgow who fronted Life Without Buildings.  Tompkins’ distinctive talk-sung vocals were the calling card of the band.  She took the ideas from her sound art and applied the to the music, basing songs around repetitive phrasing, random exclamations, and sometimes what appeared to be just plain gibberish.  In a typical Life Without Buildings song, she’ll talk-sing non-stop, jabbering and stuttering weird phrases, squealing with childish glee, and in general sounding a little bit like a toddler.

On the second listen to their lone album Any Other City, I was suddenly obsessed.  By about the fifth, I wanted to be Sue Tompkins’ best friend.  It’s now one of my favorite albums ever and I don’t think I’ve been so obsessed with a band since I got into Sleater-Kinney.  But, while I have an easy time explaining why Sleater-Kinney is so great, I find it a bit more difficult to articulate the brilliance of Life Without Buildings.

I think Life Without Buildings is one of the few bands that just has a magical aura about them, and it’s mostly due to Tompkins.  While indebted to previous talk-singers like The Fall’s Mark E. Smith and various female post-punkers, she has a vocal style that is unlike anything else in music due to her lyrics.  While it would be easy to write off those lyrics as the improvised workings of a crackpot, I’m convinced that there’s a deeper meaning to them.  I’m just not sure what yet, and that’s part of the band’s allure:  Every song is like a riddle that is impossible to fully crack.

Perhaps the genius of the band fully set in when I listened to their live album Live at the Annandale Hotel.  While I’m typically not a fan of live albums, this one is an essential recording of a rare performance from a short-lived band, and features Tompkins’ adorable stage banter and breathless enthusiasm.  Most shockingly of all, the live versions of the songs are near carbon copies of the ones on record, proving that there’s a real method behind Tompkins’ madness.

Lost in all this blathering about Tompkins is that the band behind her was extremely good as well.  Led by Robert Johnston’s melodic guitar playing, they’re the perfect complement to Tompkins’ ramshackle vocals.  Rather than be flashy and show everyone how great they are at playing their instruments, they’re willing to take a backseat and complement Tompkins with strong rhythmic playing.

As mentioned, LWB only made one album, Any Other City.  Along with a couple songs off singles, they have 14 songs in total (along with the accompanying live versions from Live at the Annandale Hotel).  I’ve been playing the crap out of all of them, treasuring every second that the band recorded and constantly wishing there was more.  Unfortunately, the band broke up, partly because Tompkins wanted to go back to pursuing her art.

While their scant amount of material is disappointing, it’s acceptable when the quality of everything is so high.  The band mostly had one trick anyways, so it’s hard to know what they would have done after Any Other City.  On that album, they use pretty much every variation of that trick perfectly, delivering a set of songs that are more different from each other than they appear on first listen.  The first track is “PS Exclusive”, the fastest paced and most rocking song on the album which immediately asserts the genius of Tompkins, who cycles through phrases like “the right stuff” and “this is not advice” until they’re burrowed into your brain.

More than any other band, there are specific little moments in each LWB song that I absolutely love, and it’s easy to collect a list of favorite phrases from the eminently quotable Tompkins.  “Let’s Get Out” has some of her best lines, including “LOOK AROUUNDDDDD”, “look back and say that I didn’t!” and “come complete!”  The spiky instrumentation makes it possibly the most post-punk track on the album, but Tompkins’ vocals always separate LWB from the post-punk revival bands that would follow them (usually gloomy Joy Divison knockoffs).

While I love all of their songs, “The Leanover” stands out among them and is, in my opinion, one of the best songs of the last decade.  It’s wordy even for LWB standards, and I love reading different interpretations of the song (one rumor is that it’s about fellatio; I prefer to think of it as being about the beginnings of a relationship in general).  It’s littered with pop culture references (M-B-V would seem to be a nod to My Bloody Valentine, Virginia Plain, etc) and more Tompkins-isms like “I don’t trade”, “contact!”, and “he’s the shaker, baby!”  The rest of the band gives it a perfect background with a more laid back, dreamy sound.

There’s numerous other highlights on the album:  The mostly spoken-word finale “Sorrow”, the jaggedy pop of “14 Days”, “Juno” with its tempo changes and ringing guitars.  I think every song is worth checking out, although the band is obviously an acquired taste:  What makes Tompkins such a genius is also what likely drives a lot of people away from the band.  Regardless, in a decade that I thought was marked by a lot of boring and unoriginal music, Life Without Buildings stood out as a unique band that had more charisma and personality than any of their peers.

Favorite 90s Albums: #9 – Nirvana – “In Utero”

Nirvana occupies a strange place in music history.  In the 90’s, they were universally seen as the most influential band on what came to be known as alternative rock, which was one of the defining phenomenons of the decade.  But in the last few years, it seems like the entire idea of alternative rock has gone by the wayside, replaced by a swath of indie bands that have gained increased exposure due to the internet and music sharing.  The so-called alternative rock stations of yesteryear are largely ignored and mocked, at least among people I know, as they play bands like Nickelback and Three Days Grace that copied Nirvana’s sound but sucked all of the energy and spirit out of it.

So what does all of this mean?  For one thing, it’s likely that Nirvana has influenced more bad music than any other band in the last 20 years, and in a way I think that has detracted from their legacy.  While the band always had haters, it seems like more than ever it’s become a popular thing to call Nirvana overrated, to chide them for being unoriginal, or to label frontman Kurt Cobain as someone who only has achieved the level of fame that he did because he killed himself at age 27.  Oddly, little of this discussion seems to be about the music:  Calling Nirvana overrated has just become another tool that people use to try to sound like they’re cooler than other people.

Of course, based on their placement of them on this list, you can probably guess what I think of these people.  I think they’re wrong.  Completely, insanely, embarrassingly wrong.  The kind of wrong that makes me wonder if they really have brains that are capable of rational thought.   Nirvana is largely deserving of all of the accolades they get and the reputation that they earned, and it is mostly due to Cobain, who is similarly worthy of all the praise heaped upon him.  It’s not a result of dying young (although I’m sure it helped), it’s a result of him being a genius songwriter and the perfect frontman for his generation.

What’s easy to forget about Cobain and Nirvana (even though I think it’s said a lot) is just how different they were from what had always existed in mainstream rock music before them.  The typical rock frontman before them had to be full of cocksure bravado, presenting himself with shirtless, chest-beating machismo.  Cobain was the complete opposite of that:  A sensitive, troubled guy who would often wear layers of sweaters to try to hide his scrawniness from the public.  And he replaced the typical rock male arrogance and swagger with an altruistic view of music:  While the typical arrogant male rock star would pat himself on the back for his success, Cobain was always willing to admit that he ripped off the Pixies, to credit contemporary bands that he enjoyed, or to trumpet his own favorite obscure bands of old.

Nirvana also came around at the perfect time.  They were different, and America badly wanted something different, particularly in rock music, which had been dominated by the bombastic hair metal bands of the 80’s.  They broke through with “Nevermind”, a great album that remains possibly the last truly game-changing moment in music.  But, while that album may be their most important (and one of the most important in rock music history), I think “In Utero” has always been the more interesting album.  “Nevermind” made them the biggest rock band in the world; “In Utero” is the fascinating follow-up from a band and frontman who never really seemed comfortable with that level of popularity.

While “Nevermind” was a huge album, the one criticism of it generally centered around its slick, radio-friendly production.  The band wanted to avoid that on their second album, so they brought in indie rock maven, punk rock icon, and all around badass Steve Albini to produce “In Utero.”  The choice of Albini fit perfectly with how uncomfortable Cobain was in the spotlight:  The band was seeking to get away from their mainstream image, and there was nobody more out of the mainstream than Albini, who would froth at the mouth at the very mention of signing with a major label or selling a song to a commercial.  He also gives “In Utero” his patented noisy sound, with very wide dynamics, vocals lower in the mix, and more of a “live feel” in general, which makes it sound better (to me) than “Nevermind.”

I’ve already mentioned that I think Cobain was a genius songwriter, but it’s admittedly a more subtle kind of genius.  It isn’t the kind of genius that immediately shows itself with amazingly complex thoughts that are beyond anything you can understand.  Rather, Cobain’s genius lies in simplicity.  His uncomplicated song structures, simple lyrics, and seemingly basic melodies never seem like they should be great, but they turned out to be transcendent.  He had a knack for finding that simple little melody or lyric that would just stick with you, such as “I tried hard to have a father but instead I had a dad” off album opener “Serve the Servants.”  It seems meaningless or nonsensical, but for some reason it’s a line I think about a lot, and that is a testament to Cobain’s abilities.

One of the aspects that I always enjoy about “In Utero” is how it seems almost like an attempt at a flop by Nirvana.  The band had gained a massive following, and in many ways the album seems like a test of that audience, an attempt to weed out the posers and fakers that Cobain believed had misappropriated their music.  “Scentless Apprentice” and “tourette’s”  in particular are far cries from the radio-friendly tunes of “Nevermind”, with each featuring Cobain howling over a massive amount of noise.

The ironic part is that “In Utero” became a big hit anyways, in part because Cobain just couldn’t seem to help himself when it comes to writing great rock songs.  Singles like “Heart-Shaped Box” and “Pennyroyal Tea” are both perfect examples of Nirvana’s quiet-loud dynamics (something they “borrowed” from The Pixies) and huge rock choruses.

The album also showed some growth and perhaps hints at maturity from the band, like on the world-weary album closer “All Apologies.”  While most of Nirvana’s songs prior to it had been straight-forward grunge rock, “All Apologies” sounded more folk influenced with its cello and Cobain’s bleak lyrics.  At the end, he refrains “all in all is all we are”, a typical Cobain-ism that sounds more significant than it should be.  “All Apologies” is the ideal closing track to Nirvana’s brief career, and a glimpse at what may have lied ahead for the band had Cobain lived on.

Cobain’s death makes it difficult to evaluate his career objectively, and certainly it has been romanticized.  But I don’t think it’s an accident that Nirvana is the one band from the scene that continues to be acclaimed, the one that continues to be listened to, and the one that continues to inspire people.  “Nevermind” was the commercial breakthrough, but I think “In Utero” does a lot more to explain why this band continues to be cherished by so many.  It’s a daring, ambitious, progressive album from a band that probably could have put out anything and had it sell like hotcakes.  More than anything else, I think that sense of ambition and punk spirit is what separates Nirvana from their grunge counterparts, and makes them one of the best rock bands of the 90’s.