Marika Hackman – I’m Not Your Man (2017) – B+
Opener and lead single “Boyfriend” announces the switch from We Slept at Last’s indie folk to 90s’ alternative rock if the cover didn’t tell you that much already … and it’s one of the best songs of the year. Much has been made of the lyrics; specifically, Hackman’s excellent takedown against arrogant attitudes (ie. “It’s fine ’cause I am just a girl / ‘It doesn’t count’ / He knows a woman needs a man to make her shout”). But the reason that it’s a great song is more than that: absolutely every element is worth noting. There’s the groan of the guitar riff and the tumble of the drums; the explosive power of the choruses, and the catchiness of the wordless vocal hook afterwards. Less obviously, there’s the ghostly backing vocals during the second verse (be sure to note the humourous bit of how Marika Hackman’s “She likes [my hands] ‘cause they’re softer than a man’s” is followed by a distant “I like to moisturize!”). And it’s such a casual masterpiece too: check out the way the Big Moon’s Jules Jackson screams after the last chorus (“A woman really needs a man to make her scream”) and keeps going higher and higher before ultimately resigning (“I can’t go any higher!”), and the accidental laugh that opens the track. A lot of people have made comparisons to Radiohead’s “My Iron Lung,” and let me tell you, this one’s just as good if not better. Back when I first heard We Slept at Last, I couldn’t imagine her doing a song like this, let alone knocking it out the fuckin’ park.
It behooves me to state plainly that nothing else on the album comes close, and the album could’ve used some trimming (I’m especially thinking of “Blahblahblah,” whose outro gets louder and louder without any real weight). A handful of the songs have an element or two worth savouring. On the louder side of things: the whining hook on “Good Intentions”; the guitar line on “My Lover Cindy”; the shamelessly catchy choruses on “Time’s Been Reckless.” On the quieter side of things that recall her quieter debut: there’s the finger-picked “Cigarette,” and how she sings some of the lines on “So Long” (“Like the world that you feed you’re a lie”); closer “Majesty” has a cool murky tone (my first thought was Nirvana’s “Come As You Are”). Lyrically speaking, even on the rockers, she’s going for a lot of striking biological images; she commits siblicide of “Good Intentions” while the choruses call her mental state in question and the verses do the same with her physical state (“She watched me bleeding out / Strapped on a tourniquet”); her target in “Boyfriend” comes to her “for entropy”; the choruses of “Cigarette” has her indulging in a petroleum-soaked kiss as an metaphorical answer to a relationship with communication issues. A strong ‘B+’; I’m happy to see her get more attention, and if a folksy lady can turn into a convincing rocker, then she can likely turn into much more.
Marissa Nadler – July (2014) – A-
It’s hard to recommend this album because if you’ve heard one Marissa Nadler song, you’ve heard them all, and this one starts with one of her best (the album’s best, anyway). All of the songs showcase vocals and acoustic guitar that create atmosphere like you’re driving through a ghost city, with the occasional other element (“Drive” deploys a pedal steel guitar; “Was It A Dream” has drums and an electric guitar that point ahead to Strangers, as well as some plucked strings in the last minute), which is fine since she sings well. That being said, her style can get wearying, and it doesn’t help that most of the good stuff is packed within the album’s first five songs. On the second half, “I’ve Got Your Name” isn’t memorable (except for repeating the hook of “Firecrackers”); “Holiday In” and “Nothing In My Heart” end the note on a whimper, erm, quality-wise. And yet, it’s hard to explain just how much this album meant to me in 2014. An older woman once told me everyone’s lives are in a constant state of transition, and I say that now too as a way of self-assurance: 2014 was especially hard for me; 2017 is shaping up to look much the same. Three years ago, I latched onto lyrics like “If you ain’t made it now you’ll never gonna make it” (which opens the album) and the choruses of “Drive” (“Still remember all the words / To every song you ever heard”) as I hit the maximum speed limit during the pre-rush hour traffic to get to the gym. That twenty minute drive was the closest thing I could get to for a physical escape. Three years later, I latch onto the same ones, but identify strongly with few others: “Used to drink more than your man could” (as my body has rendered it harder for me to tolerate alcohol to the point that I rarely drink anymore) and the choruses of “Dead City Emily” (“Any other man, would’ve run, run away”). The idea of music as escapism has always been one of my favorite forms; stuff like this help the transition.
Margaret Glaspy – Emotions and Math (2016) – B+
Fans of Angel Olsen and St. Vincent and Speedy Ortiz ought to rejoice: they’ve found a new heroine, one with the vocal sound of the first, the guitar ability of the second and the lyrical promise of the last, and, with “You and I,” a song that’s better than most of their output. Because of all of that, I really wanted to give this this under-discussed indie gem of 2016 an ‘A-‘, but the truth is, the songwriting just ain’t enough: the rhythm section and keyboardist, even the song structures (only four of these songs breach the 3-minute mark) all exist only to serve Glaspy, which would be fine if she didn’t almost always rely on the same guitar tone/chords (think: Crazy Horse). And while the guitar does elevate certain songs (ie. “Situation”; “Love Like This”; the bridge and the outro of “You and I”, finally riding out of a relationship gone stale when she discovers how much better her guitar’s been to her), it’s really her voice that’s her best weapon. To wit, she’s able to flick her voice into a growl or a yearn at a moment’s notice, creating gems like “Emotions and Math” (“I WAS A ROLLING STONE”, though I wish she did more with the title than merely rhyming it with “Shivering in an ice cold bath”) and “Somebody to Anybody” (the heartbreaking way she hits the high note in the choruses, “I don’t want to be somebody to anybody, no”). And on “You and I”, if reading the first two lines don’t immediately grab you (“Oh, tonight, I’m a little too turned on to talk about us / And tomorrow I’ll be too turned off and won’t give a fuck”), she’ll cinch it with the way she brings the last word down to its knees (such a shame that she has to censor herself to an unimpressive “Won’t give a what” in live versions). Oh, and the cover is lovely; reminds me of a picture of Stevie Nicks in a similar pose.