It’s been nearly three years since Sleater-Kinney released their last album, One Beat, back in August of 2002 (see the September 2002 issue of Two Louies for an in-depth bio of the band and a review of that spectacular album). In the 33 months since, the band has toured relentlessly (par for the Sleater-Kinney course), though taking more time away from the road than previously was customary- in part, so that vocalist/guitarist Corin Tucker could spend time with her husband and her young son, who turned three in March.
While the band is in its twelfth year as a musical entity, it is in its tenth year with drummer Janet Weiss backing Tucker and lead guitarist Carrie Brownstein. Weiss is truly the Ringo Starr of local drummers (which is meant as the very highest compliment). Her unerringly solid drumwork provides a dense foundation for the band, more than compensating for the trio’s lack of a full-time bassist. Obviously Zep’s John Bonham is a long time influence, for Janet Weiss doesn’t pussyfoot around behind the kit. She’s a certifiable monster! Her kick drum is like a punch to the solar plexus. Her jungle toms bring out the animal in just about everyone.
To be sure, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein are no slouches either. Tucker’s booming voice most often calls to mind Patti Smith, but falls to the shouty region of Maria McKee of the long-departed Lone Justice, as well as numerous other great singers- catalogued in vivid detail in the aforementioned 2002 review. And here, more dramatically than ever before, Brownstein indulges her own rock goddessness, channeling Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page for sheer, joyously pure rock ‘n’ roll wankosity- especially on “What‘s Mine Is Yours” and the off-kilter interlude between “Let’s Call It Love” and “Night Light.”
And still vibrant at the core of the band is its penchant for pushing itself to the very edges of its musical limitations, trying new styles and colorations with a restlessness worthy of David Bowie or Beck. Not content to sit on their mutual and individual laurels, each of the women in Sleater-Kinney astutely pursues her own line of personal work, while enhancing the collective entity at the same time. Few bands in the existence of the whole rock genre have managed to keep their intra-personal shit together for ten years. Even more unusual is the fact that this band has continued to grow and mature through this process, rather than finding the sublime stagnation which typically overcomes most musical aggregates by their third or fourth album, if they are lucky to make it that far in the business of music.
That Sleater- Kinney have come through this process with their ethics and integrity intact is yet another testament to the high ideals and stalwart determination these women inexorably radiate. Though they could have done so long ago, Sleater-Kinney will not sell out, nor compromise their values- though for some hardcore fans they may have committed treason by way of the mere fact that with the release of this, their seventh album, the band went with the high visibility of the SubPop independent label over the more DIY approach offered by their longtime former label, Kill Rock Stars. As if being successful were some sort of badge of betrayal. That’s an unfair burden to place on a rock band- though it must be said that, all the same, Sleater-Kinney are nothing if not socially proactive in the creation and presentation of their music.
And whereas One Beat contended itself not only with the standard S-K fare of stormy interpersonal relationships, it also dealt, quite cathartically with the fallout from the events of September 11, 1991- on a personal, as well as a much vaster national level. Here, the focus seems a little closer to home- as in the opening tracks wherein Tucker says “Goodbye little fox,” in the dark fairytale “The Fox,” and bemoans a “two-headed brat” (two stranded girls on their way to Chelan) on “Wilderness,” while Brownstein waxes poetic about buying a television on “Modern Girl.” Still, there is nothing pedestrian here in these musings, not with Corin Tucker at the vocal helm. With her, it’s “The Ride Of The Valkyries” all the way. All hell breaking loose.
From a line of female belters that extends from Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane (Starship) to Ann Wilson (Heart) to Linda Perry (4 Non-Blondes), Corin can throw down a quavering vibrato with the majestic gusto of a dove in a wind tunnel. When she kicks her presentation into her powerful upper register, crystal breaks at 40 yards. Suffice it to say that Corin is starting to develop a real set of pipes! I sure wouldn’t ever want her mad at me, I’ll tell you that. But her voice is less shrill now, less affected: now just a godforsaken fury, hellfire and brimstone.
Piercing guitar feedback leads into the molto chunky guitar onslaught of “The Fox.” Utilizing effects and an arsenal of guitars, Brownstein and Tucker no longer sound like girls playing guitar- they now play with the same, um, “erect” ferocity, with the same meaty guitar sounds as do the boys. The lyric is a curious, hard headed parable- “On the day the duck was born/The fox was watching, all alone/He said ‘Land Ho!’” distantly echoing Jim Morrison of the Doors’ song of the same name. Weiss’ unrelenting drum salvos, in various, passages are an absolute wonder to behold in their awesome specific density. Near the end of the song, Tucker actually starts screaming EVEN LOUDER, like some shrieking banshee in a witherous rage.
Corin sounds a lot like Linda Perry on the careening angular “Wilderness,” a saucy, jangly tale (musically reminiscent of the Breeders) about “Penny and Linda on their way to Chelan/Transmission shot, no backup plan/Will they hitch a ride or get into a fight?” Things deteriorate from there. Faint keyboard flourishes give way to a gnarly, psychedelic lead guitar solo. “What’s Mine Is Yours” builds off a fat, jagged, dual-guitar riff (vaguely related, perhaps, to the Knack’s “My Sharona”) and provides the backdrop for more of Tucker’s tormented vocals. Brownstein’s wild solo in the middle is meant as homage to Hendrix, with contorted backwards segments wrestling with overdriven omni-noise.
Brownstein and Tucker share the vocal duties on the verses of “Jumpers,” something of a musical departure for the Kinney’s- a kind of moody rock samba, with spooky vocal. “I spend the afternoon in cars/I sit in traffic jams for hours/Don’t push me, I am not okay.” Weiss changes the whole feel of the song, as she enters in the transitional section, with thunderous, sprinting toms and crashing cymbals; at which point Tucker takes over the vocal duties, wailing with untethered abandon.
The third section finds Tucker ululating like Gwen Stefani or Dale Bozzio of the ‘80s band Missing Persons, as it becomes apparent that the lyric is taking a much darker turn- with the ‘jumpers’ of the title in contemplation of leaping from the Golden Gate Bridge. “My falling shape will draw a line/Between the glow of sea and sky/I’m not a bird, I’m not a plane/I took a taxi to the ‘Gate/I will not go to school again/Four seconds was the longest way.” Chilling.
Brownstein’s gentle ballad, “Modern Girl” features sparse accompaniment, with unadorned keyboard pads grounding a singular guitar and Janet’s optimistic harmonica. “My whole life is like a picture of a sunny day.” Once again, Weiss’ monstrous kick and snare, make a brief, but raucous appearance, before the song fades to a close. “Entertain” is probably the most straight-ahead (though none the less powerful) of the ten songs presented here, with Carrie carrying the lead vocal duties- a touch of Patti Smith-like ferocity tingeing her performance. With a multi-tiered arrangement and a gathering sense of militant bad voogum, this cut is a true tour de force!
The sound of a dropped drumstick augments the intro to “Roller Coaster.” A writhingly beautiful mess of a song, it positively roils with blustery, funky energy; packing an unexpected wallop- while harkening to the Supremes and the Who, simultaneously- working from a riff that sounds like it was copped from Burt Bacarach’s “Trains & Boats & Planes” and speeded up, before it evolves into a snappy rocker, that’s over just as it really gets rolling.
A sleepy beat is the backdrop for “Steep Air,” whose lyric is punctuated with expressions of frustration: “I’m tired of waiting on a ship that won’t leave shore.” The epic “Let’s Call It Love” pulses with ominous power, while taking the distaff stance in opposition to the proposal Robert Plant put forth in Zep’s “Whole Lotta Love,” which puts us in Ann Wilson and Heart territory, circa “Barracuda.” And that’s not a bad place to be for an aspiring vocalist- it’s simply unattainable, for most. Surprisingly, Corin Tucker has become the heiress to that crown- not through years of formal vocal training, but via the school of life- singing as if her soul depended on it. And maybe it does.
Near the eventual end of the song (it’s eleven and half minutes long), Janet kicks the song into balls-out hyper drive, and from there things get interesting: as Carrie launches into proto-jam with a serious vengeance, instigating the sort of mayhem found on the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.” One half expects Janet to scream “I got blisters on me fingers” by jam’s end.
The final track of the set, “Night Light,” is comparatively mellow, when contrasted with the previous slice of bombast, contemplating the trials of domesticity, with but a modicum of the overt stridency that colors most of her vocal contributions on this album.
Mention must be made of the production work of Dave Fridmann (Yoshimi, Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips), for he is as much a contributing member of the band as the actual players in this case. At all times (well, nearly) he is redlining all the inputs on any track, creating a thick sludge from which the particular vocalist much scratch and claw her way out of the mix. The “bass” tones, seemingly derived from a signal splitter and some particularly noisy effects, further enhance the distorted mess that is the mix here. The drums sound shot from a cannon and pegged to max. Longtime fans will love or hate the sound, but there will be no middle ground. The finished sound of this album has no precedent in the Sleater-Kinney oeuvre.
Lyrically, nothing here contains the visceral punch found in the cathartic songs of One Beat. It seems almost as if band made the conscious choice to let their instruments do the punching on this outing, with muscular riffage everywhere abounding. The arrangements here are more extemporaneous, sound less rehearsed, more spontaneous than in previous incarnations.
At this point in their development, Sleater-Kinney answer to no one. To measure this album against the work of any other band would be pointless. It can only be measured by their own previous work. In that respect, this album is not as shatteringly great as One Beat. But in another respect, the new album is for the band an obvious re-tilling of the creative soil, turning the remnants of previous releases into fodder for the growth of new and stronger material in future seasons. And, with that in mind, this album, too, can be regarded as nothing less than a true masterpiece.
The Boswell Sisters, Connie (who later changed her name to Connee), Martha and Helvetia (better known as Vet) were singing sensations during the decade between 1925 and 1935 (mostly during the early ‘30s), known for their innate ability to harmonize (they also each played multiple instruments, and Connie was responsible for many of the group’s vocal and musical arrangements), as well as for the jazz-oriented nuances found in their interpretations of popular songs of the day. Starting out in New Orleans, the Boswell Sisters migrated to Los Angeles in 1930, where they became radio stars, famous for their complex and unpredictable song arrangements.
By 1931, the sisters were recording on a regular basis, utilizing the cream of the local crop among LA jazz musicians including violinist Joe Venuti, guitarist Eddie Lang, trumpeter Bunny Berigan, trombonist Tommy Dorsey and his brother Jimmy who played clarinet and alto sax. The Boswell Sisters had a huge influence on succeeding generations of singers. When asked, Ella Fitzgerald once replied: “Who influenced me? There was only one singer who influenced me. I tried to sing like her all the time, because everything she did made sense musically, and that singer was Connie Boswell.” But by 1936, the sisters had made their final recording- Martha and Vet desiring to retire from the music business, in order to settle down and raise families. However Connie continued her singing career for the rest of her life.
Today, the Boswell Sisters are not particularly well-known, although they are receiving a revival in some quarters. Consider this album to be one of those quarters. Here we have a sextet comprised of three female vocalists: Jen Bernard (Carmina Luna), Lara Michell (Carmina Piranha, Carmina Luna, Dirty Martini) and Erin Sutherland, and three accompanying musicians: bassist Keith Brush, guitarist David Langenes and guitarist Pete Krebs (Hazel, Golden Delicious, Kung Pao Chickens)- all dedicated to the proposition that the Boswell sisters’ three-part vocal harmonies were the absolute pinnacle of musical sophistication in popular music. There may be some substance to that notion.
What we get here are six fairly faithful reproductions of songs popularized by the Boswells in the early ‘30s. The backing group does not have the services of a Berigan or the Dorsey Brothers, but they plug along with a swinging demeanor, slightly reminiscent of Django Reinhardt’s Hot Club Quintet (Krebs even occasionally plays a copy of Reinhardt’s signature Selma-Maccaferri guitar)- or two-thirds of it anyway. The three vocalists here do a good job of attempting to capture the Boswells unique sound, although their finished product is somewhat thinner than that put forth by the sisters.
“The Sentimental Gentleman From Georgia,” written by Frank Perkins and Mitchell Parish, is a rollicking, frolicking number with the sort of wild tempo changes one would expect from a Boswells number. Their rendition Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s “Coffee In The Morning And Kisses At Night,” which was first showcased in the 1934 film, Moulin Rouge, with Russ Colombo, is a bit lighter than the original; with the vocal here sounding a bit reedy, more like Karen Carpenter: not as round-toned as the vocal of Connie Boswell.
The Sweets’ version of “Minnie the Moocher’s Weddin’ Day” (written by Harold Arlen and Ted Kohler) is completely faithful to the original, vocally- though lacking Berigan’s bluesy, muted trumpet solos from the first edition. And their take on the lilting ballad, “It’s Written All Over Your Face,” penned by Basil Adlam and Arthur Schwartz, with Bernard taking Connie Boswell’s vocal solo, is nearly identical, up to the point that, here, the accompaniment lacks the reeds, horns and strings of the original.
Another Dubin/Warren classic, “Shuffle Off To Buffalo” is given a bright, snappy treatment, more upbeat than the original, with the support players offering a breezy arrangement, while the vocalists maintain some of the twists and turns that marked the earlier interpretation. Arlen and Kohler’s “Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea” probably undergoes the greatest departure, with a more pop-oriented vocal arrangement than the blues-laden adaptation the Boswells concocted.
Anachronistic, but hip and cool at the same time, Stolen Sweets are not necessarily trying to duplicate an era or to re-create a specific sound (though at times they do). They are fans first, and their imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. That they expose a new generation to the wonderful music of the Boswell Sisters is reason enough to support this band and their various endeavors.
For those interested in the original versions of these and many other great songs, there is a wonderful album called That’s How Rhythm Was Born that features all the best songs sung by the Boswell Sisters (twenty, in all). It’s a fine, mid-priced album and certainly a worthy addition to the music libraries of those who appreciate the very reverent renderings of Stolen Sweets.
Sinking Ship Records
Susie Blue has been lurking in the back corners of the local music scene for nearly ten years, her big, beautiful voice and lovely songs mostly going unnoticed by a public cowed into liking what they are told to like. Someone should have told them about Susie. Well, honestly, I did bring the subject up eight or nine years ago, but you weren’t paying attention. Too bad. Susie tried to get noticed, in good unknown local bands, such as Soul Junkies and Sweet House and later with the all-star lineup of Sophia Starlight. Where the hell were you?
Fortunately for all of us, the peripatetic Ezra Holbrook was paying attention. As only he can, he found a rich palette of musicians with which to help Susie to realize her musical visions. The result is a great set of songs that are as perfectly composed as they are performed. A lovely introduction to the music of Susie Blue. With Holbrook sharing duties on every instrument played here, with the exception of Skip von Kuske’s (Carmina Luna) cello- including drums, bass, guitars, keyboards and background vocals, the sound is rich and full without being obtrusive.
Joining Ezra are Sean Norton (who co-produced this project with Holbrook) who also plays guitars and keyboards, keyboardist Jeff Baxter (Jive Talking Robots, Riot Trio, Triclops Organ Trio), drummer Ned Failing (Dirty Martini, Little Radio), guitarists Adam Wayne (Bella Fayes) and Rob Walsh (The Sort Ofs), keyboardist Asher Fulero (Ashleigh Flynn, Surrounded By Ninjas) and Jasmine Ash on background vocals.
We are presented here with a half-dozen understated songs that speak of personal pain, emotional catharsis and ultimate transcendence. Susie’s style is rooted in a folk idiom, but adorned with various accoutrements that lend currency to the arrangements, calling to mind the work of Beth Orton, Dido and latter-day Suzanne Vega.
“Red Car” floats on layers of vague guitars and subtle keyboards, while Susie croons a cryptic lyric. A memorably lovely chorus makes this a radio-worthy entry- worthy of any station which plays any of the aforementioned artists. A chuckling beat and bubbling keyboards propel the plaintively romantic “Your Side Of The Bed,” with devotion and loss hovering just above the scene like a lovelorn ghost. Another winning chorus renders this cut a hit as well. A sort of 6/8 time, Cocteau Twins mood invests “Getaway” with a dreamy milieu in which Susie mourns the deceits and conceits which serve to undermine the foundation of a relationship. Slippery synth-flutes swoop, birdlike, behind her; flying free for a solo, before a return to the compelling chorus. Very nice.
The moody “Big Head” combines foggy, whirring percussion loops and sparse guitars in the tension filled quiet of the verses, before flowering into a pretty chorus that is tethered to an arpeggiated guitar figure, and various overdriven guitar veils. A beautiful, flickering guitar solo sears its way into the subconscious as Susie’s forlornly sings “My head so big I might just float away.” Touching.
Even more gloomy and just as beautiful is “Sink,” a song whose ethereal butterkeys and chiming windguitars froth like a sunshaken summerday all around Susie’s lushly wistful, sadtears vocal. “Slip” plays out simply, piquantly: with Susie and her acoustic guitar gently playing against von Kuske’s distant cellos in a poignantly moving expression of her sense of distress over the end of a relationship.
Too few people know about Susie Blue. But, perhaps, this album will open a few ears for her. As well it should. Her songs are heavy without being weighty. They are light and pretty without being vacuous and empty. Susie is a strong songwriter and an alluring vocalist, with deeply felt emotions- which she wears on her sleeve. But she never displays self-pity or the slightest sign of indulgence. Instead she lays her pains out like a set of clothes on a bed- where she ponders them and may even briefly admire them. But, most of all, she expresses them with such expert precision, that we swear we are experiencing those emotions right along with her. And maybe we are.