A Sound that Turns the Mountains into Sand

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I did not mince words the last time I reviewed a Screaming Females record and I do not intend to mince them now. First off, Marissa Paternoster is the best guitar player playing guitar right now. Feel free to disagree with me, but do it on your own blog. Here at Bollocks! HQ (which, sadly, has been oft-neglected since I started grad school), we’re building statues of Marissa Paternoster and then using Screaming Females albums to blow them to bits. Because who has room for statues in their office?

But it’s not just Ms. Paternoster who makes the Screaming Females so fucking awesome. Drummer Jarrett Dougherty and bassist Michael Abbate make up a formidable (and underrated) rhythm section and the cumulative effect of the trio’s playing is, to borrow a phrase from “Doom 84,” “a sound that turns the mountains into sand.” As a band, they keep getting tighter (the intro to “Red Hand” is a sinister blast of dance/funk, like an awesome nightmare version of Franz Ferdinand), which goes a long way toward explaining why I’ve not been able to stop listening to their new album, Ugly, long enough to sit down and write about it.

Ugly was produced by Steve Albini, who shares my disdain of nostalgia (although my favorite quote about nostalgia comes not from Mr. Albini but from Don DeLillo, one of America’s best writers: “Nostalgia is a product of dissatisfaction and rage. It’s a settling of grievances between the present and the past. The more powerful the nostalgia, the closer you come to violence. War is the form nostalgia takes when men are hard-pressed to say something good about their country.” You should read White Noise) and also said one of the funniest things I’ve ever read about Lady Gaga. Not that Steve Albini is going to give a shit what I think about the new Screaming Females record or Steve Albini or nostalgia. It’s part of what I like about the guy.

But you must give some kind of a shit (or at least halfway decent fart? Perhaps a tinker’s damn?) about what I think about the new Screaming Females album or you wouldn’t be reading this. What I think is that Ugly is simultaneously the best Screaming Females album and one that would propel them to wider success if there was any goddamn justice in this world (I won’t say there is no justice because there occasionally is but I’m comfortable saying there’s not nearly enough justice in this country, especially if you’re a person of color).

From opener “It All Means Nothing” to closing ballad “It’s Nice,” the band tears through each song like a lion  tearing the flesh of the slowest wildebeest (I initially didn’t spell that word correctly & had to look it up. You learn something gnu every day) in the herd. Paternoster’s guitar gets a lot of press when people talk about the Screaming Females, but Ugly finds her at her finest vocally too, although not everyone is gonna find her voice as awesome as I do. She can be a little strident, and plenty snarly, but when she is, she reminds me a lot of Kathleen Hanna on “Double Dare Ya” or Poly Styrene on “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” or Andy Falkous on pretty much every Future of the Left album (I am excited as hell about their new album, The Plot Against Common Sense and I want you to be too. So pre-order it here, will ya? *Update: You can listen to the new Future of the Left record here. Believe me when I tell you that it is fucking great). Paternoster also croons a bit on Ugly (especially on “It’s Nice”) and “Leave It All Up to Me” features some fantastic harmonies. The strongest melody is probably on “Crow’s Nest,” which features the most joyfully infectious guitar riff I’ve heard since Built to Spill’s “Conventional Wisdom.”

Lyrically, Ugly gets into some dark territory (the sorta-title-track, “Something Ugly,” has a refrain of, “Put Mama on the phone/ I’m afraid to die alone,” for instance) – there’s torture (“Red Hand” and “Expire”) and loss of faith (Paternoster sings, “All my faith just keeps me ill” on “Tell Me No”),  but there are also some lines, particularly in “It All Means Nothing,” that strike me as addressing Paternoster’s feelings about what our society seems to want from its musical leading ladies. Probably the best line on the album comes within its first chorus: “I’m on a mission to smash the mirror/ get myself off the scale.” I hear in that, whether Paternoster intends it or not, an indictment of the way art is sucked out of music in the process of turning songs into marketable products. And when the song becomes a marketable product, the singer does too – but the options for what kind of products female singers are allowed to be are limited. Read any of the mountains of stories about Kelly Clarkson’s weight if you don’t believe me. Marissa Paternoster does not fit the mold of a woman who will sell a billion albums and wow the red carpet folks at the Grammys and I, for one, could not be happier about it.

But the bottom line here is this: loud rock music is something that is easy to do really badly and so the feat accomplished by the Screaming Females on Ugly (and their other albums) is not to be underestimated. In a time of Nickelbacks and My Chemical Romances, they have made a triumphant-yet-unassuming rock record that runs rings around its better-known competition.

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Hail to the Freaks

As a rule, assuming we really have those here at Bollocks!, we don’t review comedy albums. We certainly have nothing against comedy (I’d like to think that we are occasionally funny ourselves) on this blog, but we tend to focus primarily on music.  Because we’re music nerds. Then again, if we have any rules at all, then one of them is surely that we can break the other rules in the name of awesomeness. Right?

I just looked it up. We can definitely break Bollocks! rules (which are made up on the fly anyway) in the name of awesomeness.

In this case, I’m breaking a rule or precedent or tradition or whatever to talk about Jen Kirkman’s new album, Hail to the Freaks. I have good reason for doing so – we’re in the middle of a Summer of Badass Women and, while it’s nice to focus on women in music, exceptions should be made to let you know about badass women in other entertainment fields as well. I think I’d be a little derelict in my duty if I gave you the impression that the world’s only badass women were in bands.

And there should be no doubt here: Jen Kirkman is a badass. I mentioned her performance at Ted Leo’s solo/variety show in Eagle Rock earlier this year as one of the evening’s highlights (and, much to my embarrassment, I got her age wrong in the review; it has since been edited, but I still feel kinda shitty about it. Never make anyone out to be older than they are unless they’re 19 or 20 and they want to be 21) and Hail to the Freaks is a hilarious, honest, and goddamn intelligent comedy album. Also, after seeing her perform at the Ted Leo show, a friend of mine reminded me where I’d seen her before: Drunk History. And I only recently learned that I’d heard Kirkman long before I saw her: she was the voice of Brendan’s grandmother on the vastly underrated Adult Swim series Home Movies. In short, Jen Kirkman’s fingerprints are all over a lot of totally awesome things.

Shit. I’m already lost. I don’t really know how to “review” a comedy album. I bought it because I like Jen Kirkman’s comedy so it’s like I liked it when I bought it and repeated listens have confirmed that I think it’s a great album, which I realize is not much of a criticism. Or really any of a criticism.

Here’s the thing: if you listen to Hail to the Freaks, I suspect that you will quickly get a very strange feeling and that feeling is the realization that Kirkman is, above all, a very genuine comic (that realization might be followed by a corollary realization that genuine comics are actually kind of rare right now) . Though the album is a performance, obviously, a lot of the comedy comes from Kirkman’s personality and her honesty, whether it’s about how stupid people were to believe Sarah Palin would just go away after 2008 (“Have you never seen a horror movie?”) or her fear that she might go insane and stab her husband (she cites that fear as the reason she didn’t want to register for knives when she got married). The bit about the knives actually ends with Kirkman admitting that she doesn’t know why, but she’d rather be known as a murderer than a liar.

What I love about Kirkman’s comedy is that she’s self-deprecating without using that as a gimmick (at one point, she admonishes her self to stop explaining and “just do the material”) and she’s substantive without being didactic. Rather than merely stating that women still don’t enjoy the same rights that men do (if you wanna know whether or not there’s any justice for women in this society, consider this: Dane Cook is way more popular than Jen Kirkman. If that’s not a sign that we’ve gone horribly awry as a nation, I don’t know what is), Kirkman suggests that God allowed women to live longer because he forgot to give them equality before going on to suggest that the only thing that men can still do better than women is beat the living shit out of people (“Please learn how to almost murder someone”). Although she also explicitly calls out Barack Obama’s cowardly stance on gay marriage (a stance shared by many a cowardly Democrat), but it’s still funny because she calls him “a big nerd” instead of saying, I dunno, “Barack Obama is a total fucking coward about gay marriage” (this is why Jen Kirkman is a comedian and I’m going to grad school for social work).

There’s a lot of comedy out there right now, much of which sells better than Hail to the Freaks will, that doesn’t come close to balancing style and substance the way Jen Kirkman does. The aforementioned (or, more accurately, the afore-belittled) Mr. Cook is all style and that style is not even his – he stole it from Greg Behrendt. Kirkman’s comic style is more reminiscent of the acting of Gene Wilder; you never get the sense that she’s winking at you as if to silently ask, “You see what I did there?” Of course, the jokes are written to be jokes, but I feel like they’re coming from a place of honesty which I know is hard to define (but admit it, would-be hair splitters: you know honest comedy when you see it. I hope) and I also know it’s probably a bad idea to try to guess at a comedian’s motivations, so let me just sum it all up by saying that the feeling I get from listening to Hail to the Freaks is a very strong feeling that I’m hearing a funny, smart, genuinely good person say funny things. And if you’re inclined to believe me, why not pick the album up? I am suddenly filled with the urge to start some sort of grass roots campaign to have Hail to the Freaks outsell whatever the last Dane Cook album was.

Okay. Back to music tomorrow. I think I’m gonna bitch about a Peter Cetera song.

The Bollocks! Summer of Badass Women: Bikini Kill

It should go without saying that Bikini Kill would be at the heart of a Summer of Badass Women, or any season of Badass women for that matter. After all, Bikini Kill is a large part of the inspiration for the Bollocks! Summer of Badass Women, which I dreamed up as a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Riot Grrrl, a movement whose peculiar spelling actually came from Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail fucking around with feminist spellings of the word “women” (i.e. “womyn,” “wymyn” and so on). So there.

The women of Bikini Kill were Kathleen Hanna, Kathi Wilcox, and Tobi Vail (they were joined by Billy Karren on guitar) and as a group, they were about as badass as you can be. Hanna, according to legend, was advised by Kathy Acker to start a band because that would be the best way to for Hanna to have her voice heard. The music scene in Olympia, Washington (home of Evergreen State College, the alma mater of Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, all three women in Bikini Kill, as well as Futurama creator Matt Groening) was pretty fertile for experimentation to begin with and it wasn’t long before Hanna was in a band called Amy Carter, which used to play before exhibitions at Reko Muse, the feminist art gallery Hanna had started with some friends. After Amy Carter came Viva Knievel and then, at long last, Bikini Kill, named after a zine Hanna was working on with Tobi Vail (who is still chronicling the northwest feminist punk underground to this very day) and Kathi Wilcox. The three pinched Billy Karren from a band called the Go Team (not to be confused with twee British group The Go! Team) to play guitar in their band and that’s when shit gets really awesome.

While giving Le Tigre’s self-titled debut the Great Fucking Albums treatment, Zac mentioned that Bikini Kill – and not the more singable, dance-able Le Tigre – was the band that should’ve sent your jock-prick ex-boyfriend back-pedaling as far from Riot Grrrl music as humanly possible and my esteemed colleague has a point. It’s easier to enjoy Le Tigre more on purely musical terms but let me tell you something else: on purely musical terms, I totally fucking love Bikini Kill, especially the gritty early shit on the The CD Version of the First Two EPs. But then, I also like to work out to Minor Threat’s Complete Discography (which you can almost listen to in its entirety in a thirty minute workout).

You might be tempted, when listening to a song like “Double Dare Ya” to ask, “What’s all the shouting about?” Well, I’ll tell you. Bikini Kill was providing the soundtrack for a movement that, dog bless ’em, wanted a brand of feminism that reflected their aesthetic ideas as well as their political ones (indeed, I would argue that Riot Grrrl didn’t make much of a distinction between the two, given their frequent – and spot on – attacks on the way women’s bodies are portrayed in the media) and that movement was infused with a punk spirit that a lot of mainstream “punk” music had (and still has) lost. Tobi Vail pounded the drums like she was in the fight of her life and Kathleen Hanna was a hurricane on stage, whirling, screaming, and occasionally flashing the audience. Vail has compared Bikini Kill shows to a war, and for good reason: as I mentioned in my review of Sara Marcus’s excellent Girls to the Front, men came to Bikini Kill concerts specifically to try to menace the band, something that doesn’t happen at Blink-182 shows (although it probably should) (I kid) (mostly).

But it’s not just the sound of their music – which, by the way, was the sound of liberation – that makes Bikini Kill badass. If I had to choose one word to describe all of their albums that I own (and I think I own all of them), that word would be “exhilarating.” If you like raucous, real punk music, you should definitely listen to Bikini Kill. But what they accomplished goes far beyond just playing loud, angry music. The Riot Grrrl movement was already under way when Hanna, Vail, and Wilcox got the idea to play in a band together, but they galvanized it and give it arguably its loudest, proudest voice.

And it wasn’t fuckin’ easy either. They were harassed, shouted at, and called all manner of horrible name just for daring to make their grievances public. Do me a  favor and ask yourself this, dear Bollocks! readers of any and all genders: why is it that we are always ready to approve of some angry dude – like your Clint Eastwood movie types and all those blowhard political pundit fucktards on the TV – but when a woman, any woman, gets upset because she has to have more education to make less money at the same position as a dude, people instantly accuse her of man-hating? Never mind the fact that the men Bikini Kill supposedly “hated” – men who relentlessly belittle, objectify, abuse, and rape women – are men that everyone should hate. I don’t hate the sadistic fuck who raped and murdered Mia Zapata because he’s a man; I hate him because he’s a fucking rapist. Likewise, I don’t hate Fred Phelps because he’s a man or even because he’s a Christian – I hate him because he’s a bigoted asshole who thinks that a being intelligent and creative enough to make (from scratch!) everything there fucking is has the same prejudices that he has.

There’s a reason you can’t have a serious discussion about Riot Grrrl without mentioning Bikini Kill and here it is: they brought the spirit of Capital-P Punk to that movement (which already had quite a bit of a punk ethos to it). For those of you who don’t know, Punk is “punk” with a purpose. It’s the kind of punk Joe Strummer was even when he wasn’t playing punk music. When the Handsome Furs snuck into Burma, played a secret show, and donated all the proceeds to their friends in a Burmese band, that was Punk. Hell, any band trying to make music under the boot of an oppressive regime is a Punk band. Bikini Kill were Punk because they played songs of liberation with reckless abandon, right in the faces of those who wanted to shut them up (or worse, physically hurt them). And they were badass women because they stood their ground and inspired a generation of young women to do the same.

Great Fucking Albums #27: Le Tigre (Self-Titled)

Open this link in a new tab and keep reading. We’re going to listen to a song.

Maybe you were cognizant during the 90s. Do you remember Riot Grrrl? If so, you get one point, go to the next question. Do you remember it fondly? You get five points, next question. Are you a dude? Hooray, 20 points and I’m buying you a beer, because I really want to meet you. I’m serious. Where are you guys? A number of conversations I’ve had with other penis-owners about Le Tigre and other Riot Grrrl bands follow a distressingly common structure:

  1. Girlfriend is into this new band.
  2. Dude forced to listen to record / dragged to show.
  3. “Man-hating” experienced!
  4. Girlfriend morphs into lesbian and takes flight on majestic labia wings, never to be seen again.

These guys don’t just “not care for” this music, they blame it for ruining their lives. I’m not even— wait, are you listening to the song in the link? Isn’t that just catchy as hell?— Can you be angry or annoyed, but also having a good time? I’ll bet Kathleen Hanna thinks so, and I kinda think that’s what she set out to display with Le Tigre. Bikini Kill was the band that shitty ex-boyfriends needed to hate; shouldn’t they have self-selected out by the time Le Tigre rolled around? It’s like nobody got the memo when the music started being really fun.

The song you’re listening to, “Deceptacon,” neatly encapsulates pretty much everything you need to know about Le Tigre. If you don’t like this song, you probably won’t like the rest of the songs on the album. As a bonus, it pokes fun at NOFX, who, I just decided, are good stand-ins for the kind of nonsense, misapplied-masculinity douchebaggery that permeates… well, practically every music scene ever.

Check out NOFX’s “Kill Rock Stars” (I’d link to audio but I can’t seem to find any other than the Weird Al version— strange!), read the lyrics to Deceptacon, and know that NOFX also has a song called “Linoleum.” Too much work? I’ll break it down for you:

  1. Fat Mike sounds like Weird Al if Weird Al were boring and untalented.
  2. A lot of guys get really, really defensive when someone points out that they just might, in even a tiny way they didn’t realize, be contributing to a culture that gives gang rape a shrug and a hand-wave and insultsdegradesobjectifies and creepily pedolizes women.
  3. A lot of music sounds the same and that’s fucking boooooooooooooooooooring.
  4. It should be OK for women to do the same things as men, feel safe, and not have people lose their shit over it.

So why does Le Tigre qualify as a Great Fucking Album? Well, it rocks ass, for one thing; it’s also what pop-punk should actually sound like— but probably most impressively, this album is a badass teaching tool for feminism that doesn’t alienate male listeners. If you know a teenage boy, get him this album. With luck, it will open wonderful doors to X-Ray Spex, Sleater-Kinney, Patti Smith, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Screaming Females, and all kinds of other awesome stuff. He will learn that such questions as “what’s it like to be a girl in a band?” are stupid and unnecessary. Most importantly, it will help populate my world with more guys I want to buy a beer instead of slap in the coin purse.

-Zac