New Female-Fronted Rock Music

Screaming Females

I’ve always been a bit weirded out by people who have really eclectic taste in music. There’s a part of me — the part that thinks people need to like things for a reason, dammit — that gets irrationally frustrated when someone seems to consume everything and enjoy all of it indiscriminately. Maybe it’s jealousy, because having eclectic taste always seemed kind of cool to me, and liking more music and being less picky would probably be awesome. But despite occasionally making efforts to branch out and become more of a critic who listens to everything, I tend to go back to the same types of music that I know I love.

The most obvious example of music that fits into my comfort zone is loud female-fronted guitar rock. At this point, I would say I’m somewhat infamous for loving this style of music among anyone who has had any sort of musical-related conversation with me at any point. As a result, for awhile after making the blog, I was trying to write about other music to sort of diffuse that stereotype a bit and to show people how many different cool things I listen to. Doing this, I figured, would solidify my coolness in the minds of the people. That didn’t really happen.  And now I don’t really care, so with this post, I’m just gladly embracing my stereotype.

Because 2012 — which I think has otherwise been a forgettable year lacking any top-end albums so far — has had a lot of loud female-fronted guitar rock albums that are among my favorites so far. What’s more,  there’s actually been a lot of diversity among this narrowed down field of music. There seems to be more of these groups embracing some disparate influences beyond the obvious Sleater-Kinney, PJ Harvey, and Breeders comparisons that are always foisted upon such bands. Here are some of the new ones I have been enjoying:

Screaming Females – Ugly

Disappointingly, only one female actually screams in this New Jersey power trio fronted by guitarist/singer Marissa Paternoster. Her vocals are plenty to fill a room though, and she’s also probably the best guitarist in rock today. Ugly is the hard-working band’s fifth album and their best yet, a 14-song, 54-minute barrage of guitar heroics and punk sneer with a dirty sound that lives up to its title. Paternoster’s noisy but melodic fretwork garners well-earned comparisons to previous indie rock guitar wizards like Dinosaur Jr’s J. Mascis, but she also ventures into other styles like on “Doom 84” which almost sounds like an early metal track. If there’s a criticism of Ugly, it’s that there’s almost too much rockage to handle in one sitting, but I think I can live with that.

Dead Sara – Dead Sara

This L.A. band, fronted by singer Emily Armstrong and guitarist Siouxsie Medley, just released their debut album in April. They have a sound that’s been really missing in the last few years, playing bluesy hard rock with mainstream appeal that seems made for the radio. In fact, their lead single “Weatherman” managed to make some noise (in more ways than one) on the otherwise embarrassing Billboard Modern Rock charts, which has been strictly a boys club for over a decade now. Armstrong is a throwback style of rock frontwoman, with seemingly unlimited vocal power and charisma, and Medley is a skilled guitarist who unleashes tons of heavy riffs. What I oddly love about their debut album is that it doesn’t sound “indie” — it’s just an unpretentious slab of crowd-pleasing rock that deserves a wider audience, especially in the world of mainstream rock that desperately needs something new.

Royal Thunder – CVI

Royal Thunder play a style I’ve been increasingly obsessed with, pairing alternative rock style female vocals with more noisy stoner-rock or metal music. Overall the band plays a mix of classic rock, stoner rock, and metal, with frontwoman Mlny Parsonz bringing it together with her wailing, sultry vocals. Sometimes really heavy music can seem soulless and impersonal, but Parsonz adds a real emotional core to Royal Thunder’s music that separates them from a lot of similar groups. CVI is a massive rock album, clocking in at over an hour in length and featuring a good mix of shorter almost radio-ready tracks like “Whispering World” and “No Good” and longer doom metal dirges like “Shake and Shift” and “Blue.”

Is/Is – III

Is Is is (yep) a local band that I stumbled upon when one of the members’ other bands played at my school a couple months ago. Right now I don’t know too much about them, except that I bought their full length III on iTunes and have been enjoying it quite a bit. The band is all women and plays a style they’ve dubbed “witchgaze” — they sound like a hybrid of stoner rock, punk, and shoegaze groups, with some occasionally poppier numbers thrown in. My favorite moments of the album are when the band really lets loose, like on the epic penultimate track “Sun Tsunami” that reaches a space-rock style climax and builds for nearly eight minutes. The group has an original sound going for them and I hope they can continue to gain traction on the Twin Cities scene that I frankly find kind of boring.

Marriages – Kitsune

Marriages are another band fusing a few different sounds together. They mostly fit into the shoegaze style, with Emma Ruth Rundle’s voice buried under a lot of sound. But the typical shoegaze guitars are replaced with some metal riffs that make the band sound a lot heavier (imagine a whole album of songs that are a bit like “Loomer” by My Bloody Valentine). Kitsune is their first release and is only six tracks and 30 minutes long, but it’s incredibly cohesive, with the tracks blending into each other and making it sound like one solidified piece of music. Within that cohesive structure, there’s a lot of different dynamics and moods that make the whole thing kind of seem like an adventure.

Allo Darlin’ – “Europe”

Listen on Soundcloud

In the last few years, it seems like the line between “indie” pop and just regular pop has been blurred. Bands like Sleigh Bells that started off in the blogosphere and on indie sites like Pitchfork have popped up in car commercials and on Saturday Night Live, stages that used to be reserved for only the most mainstream rock/pop artists. This year, artists like Grimes have made great pop albums that are influenced as much by Mariah Carey as they are by obscure 80s bands.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but at the same time it seems like the initial spirit of indie pop — which used pop structures but also had more emotional, honest lyrics than mainstream pop — has sort of disappeared in lieu of an increasing obsession with pure hooks and adrenaline. I can like poppy music, but an argument I’ve had on Facebook and elsewhere is that the “pop” should never come at the expense of a true emotional connection with the music.

All this is why I’m madly in love with Allo Darlin’s new album Europe. The band, fronted by Australian Elizabeth Morris, is very much a throwback to earlier indie pop bands like Tiger Trap that expertly combined catchy pop melodies with genuine emotion. Europe is their second full-length, and it’s full of non-stop beautiful pop with jangly guitars, heartfelt singing, and honest, clever lyrics. While it sometimes sounds like other indie bands are auditioning for the next iPod commercial, the music of Allo Darlin’ feels refreshingly genuine. It’s not what anyone would call ambitious or daring, but part of its charm is its simplicity in an era of music that seems to be defined increasingly by gimmicks.

Musically, the band invites easy comparison to other sweet lyric-driven indie pop bands like Belle and Sebastian and Camera Obscura. The band’s arrangements are usually pretty straight-forward, with the typical guitar/bass/drums along with some occasional ukelele and strings. However, what really distinguishes the band is Morris, who is an extremely likable singer.

Morris’ songs are able to transcend the pejorative “twee” label due to her great voice and knack for storytelling. The lyrics on Europe often seem like real-life narratives, especially on “Tallulah,” which is the one song on the album that features just Morris and her ukelele. The word “ukelele” usually induces groans from me and others, but her lyrics elevate “Tallulah” and make it one of the best songs on the album, one that perfectly captures its bittersweet feelings on relationships and music. “I’m wondering if I’ve already heard all the songs that will mean something,” Morris sighs. “And I’m wondering if I’ve already met all the people that will mean something.”

Europe is peppered with little lyrical details that make the narratives feel real. Music is referenced frequently — standout track “The Letter” mentions the Silver Jews, while the aforementioned “Tallulah” is a reference to the album by the Go-Betweens (or possibly twee band Tallulah Gosh — both can be seen as influences on Allo Darlin’s music). As the title suggests, there are also a lot of geographical references as Morris seems to go on a tour throughout the continent on the album. She also returns to her homeland on stellar lead single “Capricornia,” which matches the album’s feelings of place and love with jangly, upbeat guitars.

On final track “My Sweet Friend,” Morris sings “a record is not just a record; records can hold memories.” Europe is a record that seems to hold a lot of them, and poignant moments like that are what makes it my favorite pop album of the year so far.

January Music Round-Up

January is typically a slow month for new music releases, but a few in the last month piqued my interest. I’d say it’s a pretty good start, mostly since I can’t remember any albums released last January and at least a couple from this month will probably be in my rotation throughout the year. I’ll go alphabetically, so as not to disorient any readers.

Cate Le Bon – Cyrk
The Welsh singer’s second album comes after a tour with St. Vincent, and it’s easy to see why the two hit the road together: Le Bon covers similar territory to Annie Clark, playing songs that sound somewhat coy but have a dark sense of humor and are prone to exploding into blasts of noisy guitar. Le Bon doesn’t quite have the ambitious arrangements that St. Vincent does, but her songs are more personal and allow her to develop a distinct and quirky persona throughout the album. Le Bon’s voice garners fairly obvious comparisons to Nico and it gives Cyrk more of a throwback feel that reminds me a lot of self-titled era Velvet Underground (if Nico had stayed with the band and provided all the vocals).  Despite the comparisons, I think Le Bon is a unique voice and talent, with a knack for clever lyrics and finding just the right place in a song to add some spice to the arrangement with guitar. Cyrk was the album I listened to the most in January and I anticipate listening to it throughout the rest of the year.

Track you should legally obtain: “Fold the Cloth”

Chairlift – Something

This New York duo, comprising singer Carolyn Polachek and instrumentalist and producer Patrick Wimberly broke out slightly a few years ago when their song “Bruises” was featured on an iPod commercial. Being featured on an iPod commercial usually isn’t usually a good sign for me, but I’m surprisingly enjoying their sophomore effort Something. The band’s sound is defined by their love of cheesy 80’s synthesizer and electronic sounds, along with Polachek’s vocals which tend to hover and remain detached from her musical surroundings. The band is at their best when making goofy, off-beat pop songs like “Amanaemonesia,” which is apparently about a made-up disease and “Sidewalk Safari” which fronts its corny instrumentation with a humorously disturbing story of running down someone with a car. For the most part, Something accomplishes what it sets out to do: It’s an odd and catchy indie-pop album that has gotten multiple songs stuck in my head constantly.

Track you should legally obtain: “Amanaemonesia”

Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory

Cloud Nothings started as more of an indie pop outfit, but frontman Dylan Baldi decided to take things in a different direction for their second album Attack on Memory. In this case, the album title is literal, as the band sounds completely different thanks to a new aggressive approach inspired by bands like Wipers. The album was produced by Steve Albini, whose production I am a notable sucker for, and its sound is refreshingly straight-forward rock, with none of the annoying affectations that are so present in indie music today. Unfortunately, Cloud Nothings is held back by Baldi himself: His adolescent singing style is grating to me and his attempts at sounding “aggressive” come off more as a kid playing dress-up than an artist who is experiencing legitimate angst. My favorite parts of Attack on Memory are when he’s singing pop songs with a bit of rock edge (“Stay Useless”) or when he fades into the background a bit, like the 9-minute “Wasted Days” which features an extended instrumental section, becoming this album’s “Youth of America.” Despite my issues with some of the singing, I respect Attack on Memory for being something different, both for the band and current indie music as a whole.

Track you should legally obtain: “Wasted Days”

First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar

The Swedish sister pair of Johanna and Clara Söderberg plays a familiar brand of rustic folk that is obviously indebted to bands like Fleet Foxes (they initially got attention through a Fleet Foxes cover posted on youtube). They have a phenomenal gift for vocal harmonies and for the most part it’s hard (even for me) not to like them a little bit, given their obvious skills and youth. Most of The Lion’s Roar follows the formula they do well, with folk songs with sweet harmonies that rise into climactic choruses. At times I think the songs can linger a bit too long, and, even though they’re not signed to the label, they sometimes fall into the trap of sounding like a generic over-serious Saddle Creek band, right down to the obligatory Conor Oberst cameo in the final track. I imagine for a lot of people that love this kind of heart-on-your-sleeve folk, The Lion’s Roar will be one of their favorites of the year, but for me it’s a well-crafted but ultimately forgettable collection of songs.

Track you should legally obtain: “Emmylou”

Lana Del Rey – Born to Die

Lana Del Rey sparked a billion think-pieces when she exploded last year with the viral hit “Video Games.” The way with which Del Rey, formerly Lizzie Grant, transformed herself into a 50’s-type character irked a lot of people apparently, and it culminated in a Saturday Night Live performance that was the subject of a vast amount of media scrutiny. Personally, I don’t really have anything against her (a musician changing her identity to gain pop stardom? THE HORROR!) but I generally enjoyed following all the inevitable hype/backlash media cycles for the last few months. Now her debut album finally drops, and while it contains the still-excellent “Video Games”, nothing else approaches that level. The title track comes closest (mostly because it’s basically the same song), but the rest of Born to Die contains forgettable tracks in a similar vein or even worse, disastrous attempts at more up-tempo pop tracks like the trainwreck “Off to the Races,” which sounds almost like self-parody. For the most part, the biggest question Born to Die raises is how something this dull and uninteresting created so much passionate discussion from either side.

Track you should legally obtain: “Video Games” if for some reason you haven’t already.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned as I attempt to keep up to date with new music throughout the year.