Monday, June 5, 2017

The Girls Who Be Kings*

This past Friday I was pleasantly reminded of a lot of my listening habits of the 90s. It can be difficult to remember where your head was at any given moment in your life, or why the music that spoke to you did so. I came into the 90s riding a wave of alternative music, listening to The Pixies, and The Replacements, and Nick Cave, and bunch of other stuff I had discovered in the late 80s. For the most part I ignored the Grunge movement. I could hear their influences in the stuff I had already been listening to and while I didn’t exactly hate Grunge none it spoke to me very much either. I liked Nirvana, but didn’t own their albums until many years later, partly due to everyone I knew already having a copy. I didn’t have to work very hard to be able to hear it.

I did discover a lot of music though. I went through a brief Alt-Country phase, though my tastes there tended toward the weird extremes of the genre. Most of these have long fallen by the wayside for me since then. I continued to follow the careers of many of the 80s artists I was into. Lloyd Cole and the Jazz Butcher continued to release new material though it seemed less and less people cared (not that many did in the first place, I guess). I tried out a lot of bands that I first saw on MTV’s 120 Minutes. I went to a few big festivals and saw a lot of bands I would never have gone to see if they played solo.

One of these festivals I went to, twice, was Lilith Fair. There seemed to be an explosion of new female vocalists/singer-songwriters at the time and I was drawn to a lot of them. I saw Dar Williams live several times. I picked up albums by Tori Amos and Bjork. I did a phone interview with Jewel when she was eighteen years old, about six months before she broke huge. Listening to women rock stars was nothing completely new for me. I owned a lot of Fleetwood Mac, and Blondie, and The Runaways, and The Eurythmics, and Missing Persons, among others. But in the 90s, like what I said about Alt-Country, my tastes in women vocalists tended toward the weird end of things.

One of them was Christina Martinez and her band, Boss Hog. Christina is married to Jon Spencer of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Jon plays guitar and shares vocals with Christina in Boss Hog, but it is definitely her band. I wrote about them twice for local newsweeklies in the 90s and saw them once at the now-defunct Grafitti (Cibo Mato was the opening act). They only released two very short full albums and a handful of EPs, so their output was pretty small. Whatever, I listened to them a lot.

This features Jon Spencer more than most of their songs.

After almost two decades of nothing, this spring Boss Hog released a new album and went on tour. I went to see them at Cattivo, a small local venue here in Pittsburgh last Friday. The lineup includes both Martinez and Spencer, as well as Hollis Queens and Jens Jurgenson, their original drummer and bassist. Mickey Finn, who was not with them originally, rounded out the band on keyboards. It was a much more intimate show than when I saw them before. Spencer himself was working the merchandise table and was very accessible. The other band members hung out in the crowd watching the opening acts (including my friends in The Homisides from down Charleroi way).

Their performance was remarkable. First of all, it was obvious that they were really having fun up there. The love and enthusiasm for what they were doing brought everyone into the show. Christina left the stage to sing from the midst of the crowd. At one point she leaned on my shoulder and sang directly into my face, about six inches away. Queens and Jurgenson were tight and powerful, a thundering rhythm section. I don’t play drums, and as much as I listen to music I admit it is the piece of bands I notice least, at least overtly. Drums underlie all of the parts I’m paying more attention to. I recognize this as a lack on my part, but other than a great drum solo I find myself not paying much attention to drummers. Hollis Queens was the exception. She was simply fierce on drums and it was difficult to take my eyes off of her. She also adds vocals to one of my favorite Boss Hog songs, Whiteout. The show ended with the song Texas, possibly my favorite Boss Hog track.

A little naughty...

Boss Hog never really completely fell out of my listening rotation, like a lot of artists have. But, since Friday I’ve listened to all of their albums (the new one is great!) and EPs, and watched a lot of YouTube videos, reclaiming my fandom. This has reminded me of a few other women vocalists/performers I was into at the same time, all but one of which are relatively unknown. While I can’t describe exactly what it is, I can hear some kind of similarity among them, a reason I got into all of them. In every case their vocals feel earthier to me, more grounded. Many of the women singers of that era tended toward the more ethereal in their vocalizations. It’s not that I don’t like that, but it seems I’m drawn to something more visceral. In every case the music veers away from mostly traditional rock songs or ballads as well, though there are exceptions. Slower, but driving, if that’s a thing. Spaces in the music for the ear to rest, but underpinned with heavy bass and drums. More than a little distortion. There is a sparseness, but lots of emotion.

In my novel This Creature Fair I write about a rock star named Morrigan Blue. She and the band I create for her are the archetype for this type of sound. I can hear it in my head even if I can never completely describe it.

I’m not summing it up very well. Let me give you my examples.

I saw the video for Dragon Lady by the Geraldine Fibbers on 120 Minutes and was immediately a fan. I bought the album without having heard another song and it was a desert island album for me for years (it might still be). They fell into the weirder end of the Alt-Country thing I mentioned. In the first article I wrote about them for In Pittsburgh Newsweekly I described them as the offspring of Hank Williams and Sonic Youth. I still think that’s a pretty good descriptor. Carla Bozelich has a deep, raspy voice that just oozes emotion for me. I did a phone interview with her that formed the basis of a major article I had published in No Depression Magazine, the national music mag for Alt-Country (there was some editing of what I wrote that Carla wasn’t happy about, but we talked it through). I saw them once in Pittsburgh and twice in Washington DC. By that time guitarist Nels Cline, who is currently in Wilco, had joined the band.

As much as I love this I understand how they're an acquired taste. My friend Lee nearly jumped out of our car into the desert at 90 miles an hour when I put this on.

Before the Geraldine Fibbers, Carla had been with Ethyl Meatplow, who you might know about from the song Devil’s Johnson which was featured in an episode of Beavis and Butthead. Since then she has been involved in a number of projects, both solo and as part of other bands, including a song-for-song cover of Willie Nelson’s Redheaded Stranger album, which Willie gave his blessing to by joining her on a couple of tracks. While I still love her voice she has moved into realms of experimental music that has left me behind.

At that same time I discovered Congo Norvell. Kid Congo Powers is a guitarist who has one of the best alternative resumes in music, having played with the Gun Club, the Cramps, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Kid is a very idiosyncratic guitarist who, by his own admission, never really learned to play guitar the ‟right” way. He uses lots of alternative tunings and is much more interested in finding interesting sounds to make with his guitar than in traditional playing. To my ears his instincts are good. Vocalist Sally Norvell has a voice that simply makes me melt. I called it a ‟mix of honey and sand” when I wrote about them.

I had been given the go-ahead to write an article or do an interview by my editor at Kulture Deluxe magazine, a short-lived and long defunct national music mag I wrote for a long time ago. I had tracked down their agent to ask for an interview, but in the meantime I went to see them in DC and was lucky enough to meet them after the show. When I inquired about setting something up Sally wrote her home number on a napkin and told me to call anytime. I did and they were fantastic. They sent me an advance copy of their new album, The Dope, The Lies, The Vaseline, which was never officially released. I’m among a very small population of people who own a copy of this. This ended up being the biggest feature article I ever had published.

I can’t really say that Sally and I are friends in any way other than the Facebook kind, but we stayed in touch over the years. When she released her solo album Choking Victim I was probably one of the few music journalists lining up to review it.

The last of these 90s female performers I want to talk about is the most well-known. PJ Harvey is well into her third decade as a respected musician. 120 Minutes was my first introduction to her through the video for Dry. I heard her first three albums through a friend of mine who was much more into her at the time than I was. But then she released To Bring You My Love and I fell in love. This still ranks as one of my all time favorite albums, just hitting me in the sweet spot of right time, right place in my life. After that I become a completist for her music, tracking down obscure b-sides and unreleased tracks and bootleg live shows... there are a lot of them. Part of what I have loved about PJ is that she has continued to grow and change as an artist, every album moving in a new direction. I fully admit that I have not been as into her recent work as I once was. I think she’s still doing important work and following her specific muse, but it doesn’t speak to me in the same way. Still, she is an artist that I will always be interested to see where she goes next.

Unlike the others, I’ve never met PJ, though I have seen her live many times. Two of those shows stand out. In December of 2000 she was breaking in a new band in anticipation of being the opening act for U2. She played a small number of unannounced secret shows that I was lucky enough to hear about and get tickets to. I saw her at the Black Cat in DC, the same venue where I had seen the Geraldine Fibbers and Congo Norvell. The Black Cat is essentially a small bar and I stood about three feet from her during the performance. Even then she was a big enough star that this kind of intimate show was a once in a lifetime opportunity. The next fall, after the U2 tour, I saw her headlining again with the same band at the 9:30 Club. This show stands out because of the date. It was 9/10/2001. The next morning, while I was driving out of DC, the World Trade Centers fell and the Pentagon was hit by a plane.

Unfortunately I didn't see the To Bring You My Love tour in 1995.
This is what passed for PJ's Glam period.

I can hear the similarities in these performers, at least in my world of aural pleasure. I can understand why they all appealed to me in some of the same ways. I’m sure there are others who fall in this category but I haven’t discovered a lot of them that speak to me in the same way. I’m sure some of that is simply where I am in life as well. Not too many years ago I got into The Kills, fully aware that they were hitting me in the same place as the bands I’ve just talked about. There is an overall sound to the band I like and vocalist Alison Mossheart fits squarely in the realm I’ve been discussing. I really like the work she has done with Jack White in The Dead Weather as well.

I’m not sure of the purpose of this, other than finally gathering all of these together in one place. Hopefully some of you will explore these artists and discover something you love. In the meantime, I’m enjoying a nostalgic indulgence.

*The title is taken from a Congo Norvell song.

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