So I thought a lot about how to write this one.
I usually plan these columns pretty far in advance, looking for common threads between the artists I’m reviewing. And I admit that this week I got lazy. The three bands I have on tap this time – Garbage, Best Coast and Beach House – are all fronted by distinctive female voices. And so I just said, “Hey, they’re all girls. That’s a theme. Let’s go with it.”
But isn’t there something downright sexist about that? I’d never base a column on artists who were all men, as if that were something special that tied them together. Shirley Manson, Bethany Cosentino and Victoria Legrand have, as far as I can tell, nothing in common except their gender. It’s just lazy. Garbage could easily fit into a column about reunited bands, or artists eschewing major labels. Best Coast could anchor a piece about fizzy pop revivalists, and Beach House is the dreamiest dream pop band around. Heck, the latter two could be in a column about duos.
So why did I group them together as women-fronted acts? I’m not sure. We’re well past the age when female artists were a novelty, and had to be sexy to get a record label to notice them. (Katy Perry and her ilk aside – that will always be a thing, I’m afraid.) I don’t really think demographically when picking favorites, but I do keep track of how many women make it into my top 10 list each year. Last year, two. The year before that, same thing. Three women made it into my first quarter report from 2012.
And while I know I select these entries based on musical quality – or at least my perception of it – and nothing else, I still feel bad about that ratio. I don’t know why. It’s probably representative – about 25 or 30 percent of my collection belongs to female artists. That makes me feel bad too, even though I know far fewer albums by women are released each month. But I don’t know why I feel bad. I have no intention of setting up a quota system for female artists in my top 10 list. For one thing, these musicians don’t need my help. Ani Difranco, Aimee Mann, Joanna Newsom, Karin Bergquist of Over the Rhine, Kathleen Edwards, Kate Bush – the word “female” isn’t even important. They’re all just fantastic artists.
Maybe it’s just that I still feel like there aren’t enough opportunities for women in the music business, outside the standard radio-pop game, and I feel like I should use this platform to promote the great women tunesmiths I discover. But then, there aren’t enough opportunities for real, honest-to-god artists in the music biz, whatever their gender. And if I want to promote anything, I want to promote that. One of the three records I have for you this week has a really good chance of making it into the top 10 list this year. That alone is worth shouting from the rooftops.
So yes, it’s all women this week. But no, I won’t be focusing on what is, in the final analysis, the least significant thing about them. I’m not talking about them because they’re women. I’m talking about them because they’re good.
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I’m not sure Garbage will ever get enough credit for their influence on popular music.
In 1995, when grunge ruled the world, Garbage took that sound and turned it on its ear, infusing it with electronic sweetness and delectable melodies. The lyrics on their first album were just as morose and self-loathing as anything else on the radio, but the songs were bright bursts of loud, blissful fun. In a lot of ways, Garbage put the hooks back into raucous guitar music – “Only Happy When It Rains” has one a mile wide – and it wasn’t lost on anyone that one of the guiding lights of the band was Butch Vig, producer of Nevermind.
I’d never suggest that Garbage invented power pop. That would be idiotic. But they did popularize a certain style of it. Before they came along, the radio was sharply divided between synthesizer pop and guitar rock, and Garbage merged the best parts of both, knocking those walls down. It went on to be a genre all its own – pop music with processed beats and raging guitars was the norm for a long time. Perhaps the best example of it I can think of now is Kelly Clarkson’s massive 2004 hit “Since U Been Gone.” That’s a Garbage song.
The most interesting analysis of the new Garbage album I’ve heard came courtesy of Lindsay Zoladz’ review on Pitchfork. Garbage, she said, was never alternative, in that they offered a synthesis of everything on the radio in the ‘90s. But now, by staying exactly the same as they always have, they’re out of step with everything – and hence, actually alternative. I really like that, even though it doesn’t quite hold up. Garbage’s reunion album, Not Your Kind of People, is a bit more of a departure than I expected, and considerably better than their last effort, 2005’s tired Bleed Like Me.
For one thing, it’s a lot more electronic. The pulsing synth bass takes over for the dirty guitars on opener “Automatic Systematic Habit,” on which Shirley Manson swears she will not be your dirty little secret. The grunge quotient has been dialed way down – when the guitars kick in on the singalong “Big Bright World,” the screeching keyboards all but overtake them, and the riff of single “Blood for Poppies” is more of a distorted bit of blues over a big beat. The chorus is almost Shania Twain, actually.
For another, the shoegaze-style moodiness has been emphasized, which is a very good thing. “Felt” could be a My Bloody Valentine song, and it’s like nothing else this band has done. “Sugar” is a low-key synth epic dripping with longing, and closer “Beautiful Freak” may be the prettiest thing in the Garbage catalog. These tunes effectively balance off the bombast of “Battle in Me,” one of the few with the old ’90s guitar sound, and they give you a sense of what a strong singer Manson can be.
But I can completely understand giving this a cursory listen and thinking that little has changed. It’s been seven years since Garbage released an album, and this is not some screaming left turn into an undiscovered country. Not Your Kind of People is still a strong collection of hummable pop songs with interesting production. The shift is subtle – Manson’s lyrics are less bitter and more encouraging (aside from “I Hate Love,” of course), and the sound is a little lighter, a little brighter. It’s not a seismic shift, but it is a change, and they should be recognized for making it.
I’m not sure what made Manson and the boys want to come back, but they’re finding a completely different music world than the one they left in 2005. I don’t know if a band like Garbage fits in. But then, listening to Not Your Kind of People, I’m not sure they care a whole lot. They’ve made a few alterations, but this holds true: if you liked them before, you still will.
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Two years ago, I wondered whether Best Coast had another trick up their sleeves.
The duo’s winsome debut, Crazy For You, was 31 minutes of reverb-soaked, ‘50s-inspired pop about boys, and it was just adorable. Bethany Cosentino knows her way around a simple, ingratiating melody, and her short, slight tunes fit her lovely voice perfectly. It was a fine, fun record, but I figured they couldn’t do another one like it without sounding stuck in a rut.
Well, Bethany and her drummer, Bobb Bruno, haven’t changed a whole lot on their second album, The Only Place, but in essence, they’ve changed everything. This second record is three minutes longer than their first, and it again contains short, simple pop songs. But Best Coast enlisted the great Jon Brion to produce this one, and he opened up their sound immeasurably. Gone are the saturated sheets of six-string noise, leaving minimalist, well-arranged, bouncy bedroom pop. It’s just as adorable as their last outing, but much more varied and interesting.
Take the glorious, shimmering clean guitar sounds of “No One Like You,” complete with ‘50s girl-group percussion. The chorus is just “no, no, no, no-o-oh,” but it’ll imprint itself on your brain. Cosentino adds layers of guitar as the song goes along, and she harmonizes with herself beautifully. “How They Want Me to Be” is similar – simple chords chiming away, Cosentino’s solo-voiced backing track holding the whole thing together as she sings, “I don’t want to be how they want me to be, I want you…”
While Cosentino spent most of Crazy for You in love, she spends much of The Only Place out of it, either heartbroken or longing. There’s absolutely no depth to this, you understand – this is old-school pop music. “Do You Love Me Like You Used To” is exactly what it sounds like: “I wake up to the morning sun, when did my life stop being so fun, wish I could care about someone…” It’s all kind of like that. But it’s great fun, and with Brion’s production, The Only Place outdoes the debut. They changed everything they needed to, and kept everything else in its right place.
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The big winner of the week, though, is Beach House.
The Baltimore duo’s fourth album is called Bloom, and I could not imagine a more perfect title. Since 2006, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally have been refining and expanding their sound, building it up from the humble beginnings of their self-titled debut. In retrospect, the only element in place on that first effort was Legrand’s voice, a glorious paradox of light and shade. The idea of Beach House – a widescreen dream-pop band as big as the world and as light as a cloud – was there, but it took some time to bring that vision to life.
But man, have they ever. In the ensuing six years, Legrand and Scally figured out how to write a Beach House song, and they replaced the lazy synths of their first couple of records with thick walls of keyboards and delicate strands of guitar. Their last one, 2010’s Teen Dream, was like a great leap forward, and Bloom doesn’t so much redefine as perfect. The songs are better, the arrangements fuller, and finally, the sound of the band matches the grandeur of Legrand’s voice.
If you’ve heard the opening track, “Myth,” you know what I mean. It sounds like Beach House to its very core, but somehow a more thoroughly realized version than we’ve heard before. The lovely oscillating guitars and keys that provide its skeleton are fleshed out with gorgeous atmospherics, subtle percussion, and a simply superb melody. Beach House doesn’t write songs to hum along with – they’re much more interested in creating out-of-body experiences – but the tunes on Bloom are never less than tuneful anyway. They’re not an ambient band, they’re a pop band with ambiance.
My favorite track on Bloom is called “Other People.” It wafts in on a droning synth and ride cymbals, but before long, Legrand steps in and takes the song dancing. From there, it just soars, the melody taking some delightful turns over Scally’s chiming guitar tones. In a lot of ways, though, that’s the A-plus on an album full of A-level material. Beach House has done exactly what my favorite artists always have: they’ve staked off territory, and slowly made it their own. There’s no one else around right now who sounds like this band, and if they want to just keep on refining this dreamy, delightful sound for the rest of their career, that would be fine with me.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.