Here's Your Ghost
(Saved By Radio Records)
Leave the Sad Things Behind
The Eames Era
(C Student Records)
Rock n roll is such an unfortunate boys club. Its not uncommon to have a band consisting of a guy that can't sing all that great, a couple more guys that can't play that well, some other guys in the backroom who can't write songs all that well and for it to pass a perfectly viable band, but get a female singer that is neither a diva nor crone (or like PJ Harvey, a combination of the two) and is not primarily trading on her cheesecake potential (see Rilo Kiley and Neko Case) they are considered off-putting. Men have no expectations to live up to in this regard - you don't have to be a Lizard King to get your props, but a woman has to be some warbly Kate Bush monstrosity to be taken seriously. It doesn't make sense. I mean there is an undeniable degree of sexual projection that goes into being a rock star no matter ones chromosomal makeup, and I'm not about to take a PC route of holding up patently unsexy female groups like Sleater-Kinney as the model that will right the scales, but I came across three CD's recently of groups fronted by female singers whose navels I've never had to see in the service of making great music. So at the risk of participating in the usual sexist curatorial practice of grouping female artists together purely on the virtue that they are female, here we go:
Kara Keith has a voice that fits the slightly minimalist intricate piano centered rock of her band Falconhawk, steady, hazy and a little distant, but in the right way. On Here's Your Ghost, they create sophisticated textured indie rock with just enough bass swing to keep it along, just enough fuzz to give it some menace, but has a crystal clear piano building the backbone with scales and patterns and even a little funk (esp on "It All Comes Down To Mars") But their strength is in the straightforward songs like "Try a Little Longer" and "Big Bomb" and old school Vince Clarke-era synth pieces like "Gay Man Pants" The have just enough crystalline iciness to keep things inter sting, and just enough warmth to keep you around. The piano structures are smarter than the average bear as well, making this an accessible listen with some cerebral sophistication.
This contrasts with the lush weave of Paula Frazer's Leave the Sad Things Behind, where her vocals take on almost a Old Nashville sheen over the delectable array of piano, steel guitar and shuffling drums. Frazer first entered the public consciousness as the voice of 4AD critical darlings Tarnation, offering a warm Country-noir counterpoint to the atmospherics of Cocteau Twins and sub surf rock of the early Pixies that made the smeary-photo typographically adventurous label home in the 80's. On her own, the mood is little brighter, but more like twilight bright iinstead of full sunshine. String sections, piano tinklings and Spanish guitar intermingle on tracks like "Watercolor Lines" while sweet organ bits augment indie twangers like "It's Not Ordinary" and the specter of noir cinema soundtracks lurk in the shadows of "Long Ago." In some ways it borders on Adult Contemporary, but there is more substance to it than the usual Borders Cafe endcap filler. Frazer has a great sense of mood and texture, where her voice and arrangements all work in conjunction to create a concrete moment, a defining aura, without any of the parts upstaging the other.
Much like the bent plywood furniture of their namesake, The Eames Era apply flawless craftsmanship to the indie pop form, making great music that is both immediately comfortable but also sticks out from the pack. Singer Ashlin Phillips has a refreshingly straightforward singing style that cuts right through the air while the twin guitars of Grant Widmer and Ted Joyner create a Television-grade tension while locking arms to cradle their deceptively complex melodies. Double Dutch comes on the heels of TV soundtrack spots and ad campaigns with some of the sunniest summer pop around. Like the other groups above, the Eames Era comes together as a group, leaving any notion of them being an anonymous backing band for an ingenue, a trap many female-fronted acts fall into, far behind. The opener "Go To Sleep" is a perfect summer song swaying around a killer hook which is the trademark for the band, while "Listen for the Sun", takes on an edgier tone while keeping the sweetness intact. They make good use of their atmosphere on "Old Folks" with underlying chatter that reminds me of that big Weezer song, except this is actually a good song, as is "Year of the Waitress." The Eames Era is the kind of band I wish dominated pop radio and maybe with the advent of the implausibly consistent style of "The O.C. sound" maybe they will. And then the images of women in pop music can get past just the veneer of sex appeal and get to what is really sexy about rock music, the music itself.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com
March sees a greatly expanded reissue of Elliott Smith's most critically acclaimed album Either/Or