I’ve been struggling with how to write about Frank Turner’s new album.
I should start by saying that I’m a fan of Frank’s work. A good friend introduced me to him around the Love, Ire and Song days, and that was at a point in my life when a song like “Photosynthesis” struck a deep chord. Frank writes fist-pumping folk-punk anthems with rapid-fire lyrics about staying true to yourself and remembering where you’re from. For my money he’s never been better than England Keep My Bones, but Positive Songs for Negative People comes very close.
There’s always been something sort of awkward about him too, though, like he’s putting on a show, and the more I listened to last year’s topical Be More Kind, the more I felt a bit of that awkwardness. It was a record that seemed unaware of the both-sides position it was taking, and the privilege it was reveling in when taking it. Don’t get me wrong, I like Be More Kind, but it was at times a case of a white guy lecturing people who are facing threats each day he will never understand.
I was able to put most of that aside and enjoy Be More Kind for what it was: an embrace of love as the cure for our social ills. But I’m having more trouble with the awkwardness of his new one, No Man’s Land. First of all, that’s a title that only an oblivious man would give to this set of tunes, and I’ll be shaking my head at it each time I type it out. No Man’s Land, you see, is a collection of songs about women throughout history, women that Turner apparently feels have not been sung about enough. (Get it? No Man’s Land? Ugh.)
In some cases, he’s right. “The Lioness,” for example, is about Huda Sha’arawi, the founder of the Arab Feminist Union, and she’s certainly someone who should have a folk-rock song written about her. “Silent Key” is about Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire teacher who, along with six other astronauts, died in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. I was 12 at the time, and from New England, and to have a song like “Silent Key” dedicated to memorializing her is like marking a moment in my life as well.
I can even understand Turner wanting to write songs about Sister Rosetta Tharpe, too, or Mata Hari, since they’re fascinating figures, even if they’re very well known. These songs find Turner in full Billy Bragg mode, spinning stories, some of them in first person, some as if he is a troubadour telling tales for coins. I can feel his good intentions in each of these songs, too. For instance, I expect he thinks of “I Believed You, William Blake” as a tribute to Catherine Blake, who lived in the shadow of her famous poet husband. Of course, the song is about William through Catherine’s eyes, which illustrates the issue.
And that issue, frankly, is that Frank Turner isn’t the person to write or sing these songs, despite his skill and intentions. He really tries to get beyond his own maleness here, hiring an (almost) entirely female band to bring these songs to life, but it still feels like a man explaining women’s history in a way that is, alas, inescapable. It’s hard to think of this as anything but an ill-advised project from the start, no matter how strong it is or how much I like it.
And I do like it. Turner has grown into a much subtler songwriter, and the best songs here are really strong ones. I question whether serial killer Nannie Doss should be here alongside women like Sha’arawi, but her song, “A Perfect Wife,” gets into her mind in a clever and disturbing way. “The Death of Dora Hand” sounds like an ancient folk number, memorializing a singer killed by accident in Dodge City in 1878. “The Graveyard of the Outcast Dead” is about a cemetery in Southwark where forgotten victims of the sex trade were buried, sung from the point of view of one of those women.
In the end, though, this isn’t an album about celebrating unheralded women from history as much as it is a collection of stories Turner found interesting. (Which explains both “A Perfect Wife” and “I Believed You, William Blake.”) One of the most interesting is “Rescue Annie,” the story of an unidentified woman who died in the river Seine in the 1880s, and whose face was used as the template for the first CPR doll. Turner is fascinated, as any good writer would be, in the dramatic possibilities of a virgin suicide becoming perhaps the most kissed face in history, and on the surface, that works. (“Rescue Annie from the river, with every kiss she is delivered, from the depths and we forgive her for falling in…”)
But this really is a story about a male doctor who stole a dead woman’s face without her permission, which wrecks the metaphor and the poetry completely. I still like the song, but Frank seems unaware that it’s kind of a problematic story, especially on an album he’s dedicated to forgotten women.
That’s kind of what you get on No Man’s Land, though there is one song that really works: the closer, “Rosemary Jane,” about Turner’s mother. It’s a sweet ode, though it is entirely about him and his memories of her. It’s the best thing here, but also further proof that the old maxim – it’s the singer, not the song – is what trips this record up. I still like it, and I still like Frank, and I hope his next batch of songs are purposefully and deliberately all about him and how he sees the world. It’s his best subject and I hope he gets back to it.
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That was a lot of words to say “women should tell their own stories,” and with full knowledge of the irony of a man talking about women telling their own stories, here are a couple reviews that prove the point.
Start with the Regrettes, which is one of the best band names I have ever heard. That name bought them at least one record with me, and it was their debut Feel Your Feelings, Fool, and I enjoyed it enough to buy their second. It’s called How Do You Love, and it’s better than the first. Frontwoman Lydia Night is all of 18 years old, and there are certainly some youthful miscalculations here, like the spoken intro. But mostly she and her band impress with the quality of these quick, catchy tunes.
The Regrettes are in the mold of the Runaways, playing simple punky guitar-pop with a witty snarl and an open heart. “Coloring Book” is a song you only write when you’re young, and I have no doubt it’s resonating with people Night’s age all over the country. (“I can be your baby if you want to be mine, I’ll color in the picture if you just draw the lines…”) It convincingly builds from an intimate strum to a big electric crash, and it’s one of my favorite things here.
But I have a lot of favorites here. How Do You Love is a joyous romantic delight. I’d put the likes of “Fog” and “Dead Wrong” up against the best pop of the year, and the Regrettes confidently straddle the line between their pop leanings and their identity as a live, raucous rock band. This second album says loud and proud that the Regrettes are here to stay, and given how young they are, we could be in for decades of good stuff from them.
Of course, all things must come to an end, which is at least some of the story of the new Sleater-Kinney album The Center Won’t Hold. This is the last S-K album that will feature longtime drummer Janet Weiss, who has been with the band since 1996. It’s the end of an era, and it’s fitting that her swan song is this strange, abrasive album about things falling apart.
As you’ve probably heard, The Center Won’t Hold was produced by St. Vincent, and if you picture in your head what that combination might sound like, I think you’ll be pretty close. Annie Clark’s fingerprints are all over this, but it’s still defiantly a Sleater-Kinney record. It still rocks, but in a new, more synth-y way that somehow doesn’t give up the intensity that this band is known for. The chorus of “Reach Out” floats on harmonies and lead guitar, leaning into its pop song qualities, and this is new for S-K, but they make it their own.
“Can I Go On” feels like the heart of this record, a lament for our current society with a shoutalong chorus that feels equal parts Sleater-Kinney and Clark. It’s about the state of the world and the ways it eats at you each day, making it harder to keep going. (“Maybe I’m not sure I want to go on…”) The album is full of difficult sentiments like this: “Never have I felt so goddamned lost and alone,” Corin Tucker wails on “The Future is Here,” and on album closer “Broken” she admits she’s “breaking in two, I’m broken inside.” And man, do I feel all of that.
It’s to the band’s credit that The Center Won’t Hold is the furthest thing from a downer. Its songs end up as singalongs more often than not, and the overriding sense this leaves me with is that we’re all feeling this way, and we need each other. Things fall apart, the center doesn’t hold, and we’re left to deal with it. But we’re not alone. If that seems like a lot to convey in 36 minutes, trust that Sleater-Kinney can do it. They’re a band with nothing more to prove, but they prove it anyway on this record, and it’s a treat.
Next week, some weirder ones. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.