It’s a Woman’s World
Great Music by Female Artists Isn't Hard to Find

This week’s column is all about women, but I’m going to start it off with news about two groups of men. Yeah, I know, I’m a bastard. But it’s good news, on both fronts, and music fans are going to want to know it.

There’s been an explosion of really cool Canadian bands in recent years, including the New Pornographers, Broken Social Scene, and the Grammy-winning Arcade Fire. (Not tired of saying that yet.) But I still think the country’s best band is Sloan. They are masters of ‘60s and ‘70s-inspired power pop, and over 20 years and nine albums, they’ve amassed a killer catalog and a dedicated following. Their 10th album is called The Double Cross (as in “XX,” as in 20, as in their 20th anniversary), and it’s out on May 10.

That’s not even what has me all excited about it, though. It’s the first single, “Follow the Leader,” which you can hear for free right here. If this doesn’t make you want to get up and dance your way to a record store and buy this album, I don’t know what will.

In other brilliant power pop news, Quiet Company has announced that their third album, We Are All Where We Belong, will be released in May or June. If I had a time machine and could travel forward three months and hear this thing right now, I would. I’m anticipating this like no other album this year. But as if to tide me over, this month will see QuietCo’s first DVD release, Live From Studio 6A. Having seen the band live, I can attest to their awesomeness. You’ll be able to buy both the album and DVD from their site. And you should.

You can also see the ridiculously amazing track list for the new album here. Every song has a parenthetical subtitle, and several of them call back to earlier QuietCo tunes. (One of them calls back to two at once.) My favorite: “Fear and Fallacy, Sitting in a Tree (You Were Doing Well Until Everyone Died).” I have no idea what a song with that title might sound like, but I’m excited to find out.

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Two out of my top 10 albums of 2010 were made by women. Same with my picks for 2009. And 2008. Only one woman made it into my 2007 list. Ditto 2006.

Why am I telling you this? Ordinarily, demographic information like this doesn’t faze me. I pick the best of the year, as far as I can determine it, and it doesn’t matter if the number one record is made by albino giraffes, it’s still the year’s number one record. But when it comes to female artists, I’m particularly sensitive. There’s a general lack of respect paid to women who write and play their own songs, as if that’s the province of men only, and I don’t want to perpetuate that.

Still, the numbers speak for themselves. I used to console myself by berating the male-driven music business: there just aren’t that many female artists that are allowed to make great music, I’d say. I’m not sure that was ever true, but it’s not true now. The Internet has leveled things out. Women have the exact same opportunities as men, when it comes to making interesting music and getting that music out there. I hear a lot of great music, and more and more of it lately is made by women.

Take this year, for example. We’ve already got one album by a female artist, PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, that’s practically a lock for the top 10 list. I’ve also loved new things by Over the Rhine and Corinne Bailey Rae. And this week, I have three more albums, by three artists you probably haven’t heard. They’re all worth tracking down, and they should (hopefully) help pump up the number of women in my top 10 list this year.

First up is Texas quintet Eisley. Three sisters, their brother and their cousin, all named DuPree. They play and sing sweet pop music with extraordinary melodies and harmonies. It’s been four years since their second record, Combinations, and the DuPrees have spent it first recording, and then fighting for the right to release their third. They’re off Reprise Records now, and back to the indie world.

So the natural headline is Family Band Fights for Their Music to be Heard, which should be enough of a hook. I hope it is, because Eisley’s third album, The Valley, is wonderful – it’s accomplished and full and complete, and worth every minute of the wait. There’s a certain sheen to this record, as you might expect – it was originally recorded on a major-label budget, after all – but the songs make it work, and the DuPree sisters sing like angels, as always.

Eisley specializes in optimistic-sounding pop that masks the darkness of their lyrics. “Watch It Die” is practically a celebration of a relationship’s end: “My love for you has died tonight, I don’t know how to own you…” The chorus of this song soars, the strings pulse, and the whole thing sounds sweet and exultant. “Sad” is the same way. The song (which I first heard at Cornerstone Festival last summer) is about commiserating with a friend whose lover isn’t coming back. But the music is jaunty, super-melodic and fun.

Judging by the lyrics, it’s been a bad few years for the DuPrees. Most of these songs are about love dying, about trust eroding. The most hopeful is “Better Love,” which finds Sherri DuPree down on herself, but taking solace in her significant other: “’Cause I’ve finally found out you’re on my side, with a bullet for the bad guys…” Most of the rest of The Valley reads like life unraveling, right up to the final track, the heartbreaking “Ambulance”: “And you say that I’m going to be okay, but it doesn’t seem that way, not today…”

Here’s the thing, though: you’d never know it, just listening. Eisley’s songs have hummable melodies to spare, and they never wallow when they can fly. Musically, this is energetic and energizing stuff – it’s a little meatier than they usually are, and there are string sections everywhere, but this is the work of a fine pop band playing fine pop songs. If you don’t pay attention to the lyrics, The Valley will leave you with a big, wide grin.

That juxtaposition has worked for Eisley before, and it works here. The Valley is, in many ways, the band’s most accomplished effort. There are at least four songs on this record that should be huge hits. They won’t be, which is a shame, but I’m glad this music is out there, finally, and not still languishing in major label hell. If the masses don’t get to hear Stacy DuPree’s beautiful singing on “I Wish,” well, that’s their loss. I’m enjoying it immensely, though.

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Swedish singer Lykke Li is a stranger case. I think Atlantic Records is trying to position her as a pop star – her songs make it onto Gray’s Anatomy all the time. (Or so I’m told, because I would rather wash my eyeballs with sulfuric acid than watch Gray’s Anatomy.) But she certainly doesn’t write songs like a pop star. Her second album, Wounded Rhymes, is a vast improvement over her first, Youth Novels, but it still doesn’t contain a single song I would consider a potential hit.

That’s a good thing, in this case. And I’m not begrudging Li her wider platform – I do wish more people would hear Eisley, because I think they’re more accessible than their indie status would indicate, but Lykke Li’s material is so weird, and in general so good, that exposing this to the masses can only be a positive development. Where her first record was more tentative, a little more traditionally electronic, Wounded Rhymes is confident, assured, strange and terrific.

Opener “Youth Knows No Pain” is a drums-and-organ delight, with a smoky, shouted chorus and a middle eight right out of a Runaways song. It’s off-kilter, but works perfectly. Like the rest of this album, it was produced by Bjorn Yttling of Peter, Bjorn and John, and he knows a thing or two about off-kilter hit-making. The trend continues on the dazzling “I Follow Rivers,” which at times sounds like it contains an endless cavern of sound behind its thudding bass and pinging percussion. If this is a pop hit in Sweden these days, I want to move there.

Like Eisley’s album, Wounded Rhymes is a dark affair, the product of a broken relationship. The song titles give it away: “Unrequited Love,” “Sadness is a Blessing,” etc. But unlike Eisley, Li doesn’t disguise her emotions with a brave face. She wants you to feel her pain, to go through the roller coaster of emotions she’s experienced. The aggression of “Get Some” is balanced against the tender agony of the closer, “Silent My Song,” and they meet in the middle in the tremendous “Love Out of Lust.”

On the album’s darker moments, like “Get Some,” thunderous toms pound ominously while reverb stretches the sound out for miles. Synthesizers don’t pulse on “Get Some” as much as they do caress and slither, while Li compares herself to a prostitute and verbally writhes all over the beat. But three songs later, she’s giving us the album’s prettiest moment, the spare “I Know Places.” “I know places we can go where the highs won’t bring you down, babe,” she sings tenderly over an acoustic guitar and little else. It’s the emotional center of the album, and my favorite track.

Overall, Wounded Rhymes is a huge step forward, a much deeper ride than Li’s debut. I don’t know where the idea that Lykke Li is a pop star comes from – this album is the work of an honest-to-god artist, one willing to go to some interesting places for the sake of her music. All I can say is, if these songs end up in American television shows, they can only make those shows much, much better.

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Eisley and Lykke Li are relative unknowns, but they’re Lady Gaga when compared with our third contestant this week, Julianna Barwick.

I can tell you almost nothing about the Brooklyn-based Barwick. I know three things about her, in fact: she’s on Sufjan Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty Records, she creates music almost entirely with her voice, and her new album, The Magic Place, is one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard this year. Or last year. Or the year before that.

We’ll start with that second one. Aside from some delicate piano and a few chimes, every sound on The Magic Place was made with Barwick’s voice. She overdubs and overdubs herself into a choir, but it’s more than that – her music sounds like someone has torn the veil between this world and the next away, and off in the unimaginable distance, beyond anything we’ve ever known, the dead are singing.

The parts of this album that are not crafted with vocals – the subtle, looping bass and heartbeat drums on “Keep Up the Good Work,” for example – serve to ground it, but they sound right here, right next to you, while Barwick’s unearthly harmonies always sound out of reach. “Prizewinning” is built around a throbbing synthesizer line, unfolding like the road ahead, while Barwick’s voice builds up an ocean of glorious harmonies around it.

There are lyrics here, I suspect, but I have no idea what they are. I’m not sure I care, either – when the songs are this abstract, hammering them down with words just seems wrong somehow. Pitchfork made a point of comparing Barwick with Enya, which I think is all kinds of wrong. Rather, I’d say she does for the human voice what Hammock does for the guitar – she turns it into something formless and endless, and then gives it shape. The Magic Place isn’t an album for everyone, but it is remarkably beautiful stuff, and unlike anything else I own.

Barwick is here.

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Next week, R.E.M. returns. So does Bruce Cockburn, but we may have to save that for the following week. Leave a comment on my blog at Follow my infrequent twitterings at

See you in line Tuesday morning.