When it's nearly impossible to understand what a band is saying, discerning the message means cues have to come from elsewhere. The Syracuse noise-punk group Perfect Pussy issues maybe five easily discernible lines over the course of its frenetic 23-minute debut album, Say Yes to Love, but the band doesn't lack for conversation-starters.
First, that name. Singer Meredith Graves describes it as a projection of self-esteem; a sort of heading off at the gate for potential detractors. Even the harshest, most personal critiques aimed at Graves, her body, her story or the band have to include an aggressively pro-female signifier. This positing of inherent worth is vital to what Perfect Pussy does, and it's one of the group's most immediately apparent traits, despite (in fact, because of) Graves' massively distorted vocals. A singer intentionally rendering her lyrics unintelligible draws attention instead to the physical act of singing — or, in, Graves' case, screaming — and deems that most important. This band is about making a lot of noise and, in doing so, making a point.
The second major conversation piece in the Perfect Pussy cosmos is the band's relationship with Riot Grrrl, the early- to mid-'90s political/musical movement that encouraged queer and/or female and/or feminist punk bands to prioritize gender inclusiveness and criticize the larger punk scene for failing to do the same. Perfect Pussy has sharply berated its hometown scene for perceived prejudices, which places it in the Riot Grrrl tradition. But it solidifies the comparison by presenting a riveting, viscerally emotive frontwoman, the likes of which were de rigueur in early-'90s feminist punk. Graves will also draw unavoidable comparisons to Alexis Krauss of Sleigh Bells, but where Krauss conveys fun, lo-fi swagger, Graves is wound up in propulsive, cathartic fury.
Say Yes to Love is not a passive listening experience, largely due to that fury. It's both exhausting and deeply compelling — intoxicating, almost, in how easy it is to put all 23 minutes of the album on repeat several times in a row. It's partly trying to decipher some of that screaming, but it's even more a desire to approach and fathom the source of Perfect Pussy's powers. Two years ago, the group didn't exist — forming only because a scene in a locally filmed movie called for a punk band — and it seems impossible for it to maintain its current energy output indefinitely. But, given the sheer force and velocity at work on Say Yes to Love, Perfect Pussy may well be unstoppable.
Back in 2007, Kevin Drew (of Toronto's baroque-pop collective Broken Social Scene) gazed longingly at a woman and pronounced her too beautiful for the carnal escapades swirling inside his brain. That song, "Tbtf," was among the wondrous creations on his solo debut Spirit If — a worship-dream set in a sleek, gliding tempo, and sung in a mood of melancholy wistfulness.
Now Drew returns with the exceedingly direct "Good Sex," which looks at vanishing romantic ideals in the age of the Tinder hookup. "Good sex should never make you feel hollow," he sings, skipping up to a giddy post-coital falsetto for the last syllable. "Good sex should never make you feel clean."
Is this progress? Going from a nuanced, image-rich reverie like "Tbtf" to a repeating series of blunt observations on the art of sex?
In Drew's case, yes. We often measure artistic growth by focusing on the big strides, but the evolution that defines Drew's second solo album, Darlings, is most apparent in the fine print — and, notably, in what he's trimmed away to make hyper-streamlined, tightly edited songs. The songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who helped guide Broken Social Scene through several gorgeous, lushly orchestrated albums is thinking differently about the scale of his songs, pruning back whatever is unnecessary. "Good Sex" works in part because it aims to express a simple idea, and uses few words juxtaposed against BSS-like widescreen music to do it. At the song's start, Drew's declarations seem oddly prescriptive and blunt, the mantras of a free-weekly sex columnist. But as the accompaniment gathers steam and eventually arrives at a full anthemic thrum, the tone changes, and a more personal refrain — "I'm still breathing with you, baby" — takes over. Just like that, what began as a cheap device sprouts dimension, registering as intimate, romance-novel heroic and just a touch sarcastic all at once.
This kind of distillation is an art, and Darlings suggests that Drew is becoming a master of it. Many of the songs spring from stray ideas and single moments; rather than seize and analyze the component parts of some fleeting rush, Drew just follows its path, then figures out what sorts of sounds best convey its essence. Some songs, like "It's Cool," amount to a series of vibey Lou Reed-ish whispers; others, like "You Gotta Feel It," use the propulsion of a basic four-on-the-floor bass drum to power a brave search for what matters in life. Where other songwriters obsess over the details of story, Drew zooms in on a moment and chases the full sensory experience of it — to hear perhaps the most crystalline of these freeze-frame moments, check out "First in Line."
Then there's "You in Your Were," an unsettling reverie punctuated by vaguely math-rock guitar arpeggios. It's a look at the power of lingering memories, and what it means to hang on, perhaps obsessively, to a memory — a topic that has doomed many songs to the high-concept dungeon. Drew avoids this fate through inventive, continuously unfolding guitar and synth textures. The song is one long rousing crescendo; its surging rhythm, which recalls Neon Bible-era Arcade Fire, gathers momentum like a plane on the runway. Everything is hurtling forward, except for those words Drew is singing about looking back, and the contrast is just strange enough to sound like genius.
There's a lot of that disarming stuff on Darlings. Though he's thinking in simpler, more earthbound terms as a lyricist, Drew can't help but write music that sprawls in satisfying, sometimes bone-rattling ways. He's on the hunt for atmospheres that allow for the expression of profound intimacy and massive sonic grandeur all at once, and when he finds one, it's a glimpse of a rare and beautiful euphoria.
"Under the Pressure," the nine-minute song that kicks off Lost in the Dream, opens with a few seconds of hair-raising electronic ticking and closes with two and a half minutes of full-band, synchronized, undulating feedback. In between, The War on Drugs shows many of the cards in its stacked deck: chugging drums, horn stabs, guitar runs that fly off into the atmosphere, keyboards with a strong melodic gravitational field pulling weight for singer Adam Granduciel's wandering mystic tenor. In place of choruses are moments where the song's elements build and converge. "Under the Pressure" also tips plenty of the band's narrowly focused but tightly integrated influences, from Neil Young to Dire Straits and a pair of Bruces, Springsteen and Hornsby. These guys are viiiiiibing on sunny, proficient '80s radio rock, man, and Lost in the Dream works best if you can slide into that space beside them quickly, whatever method you use to get yourself there.
For a record that invokes altered consciousness starting with its title, one of the most surprising things about the way Lost in the Dream unfolds is in the band's use of drum machines and synths, a nod to another '80s tradition that The War on Drugs repurposes to add tension to songs that might otherwise vaporize. These instruments are there for atmospheric reasons — to drive the songs forward and coat them in airy fuzz — but also to aid the band's knowing deployment of nostalgia. There's a moment in "An Ocean in Between the Waves" where what sounds like a papery pre-programmed beat is wiped away by evidently live drums. The moment divides the song into sections: the first gauzily retro, the other driving and clear. Granduciel's voice registers more plainly. "I can't go back again," he sings, as if he's gunning an open-top Camaro, then lets out a whoop before slamming the brakes on the song.
Judging on tempo alone, ballads split time evenly with driving songs on Lost in the Dream, but Granduciel's best trick is to diminish the distance between the two: Galloping tracks are suffused with longing, while languorous ones stay aloft on a steady beat and Robbie Bennett's keyboards. Many of the songs stick around long enough to qualify in both categories. The final track, "In Reverse," begins the way the opening track ends — with that gentle feedback — as the band slowly builds something memorable. Near the midpoint of the seven-and-a-half-minute song, after the drums kick in, Granduciel sings one of his stickiest choruses: "We're livin' in the moment, losing our grasp, making it last."
Like the music of former War on Drugs member and fellow Philadelphian Kurt Vile, this is highly emotional rock that reads as low-stakes at first. It's evocative and pleasant if you let it float by in the background, but it's made with hooks that sink in deep if you give yourself over.
In the '90s, Chile experienced an artistic wave as the children of political exiles returning after the fall of dictator Augusto Pinochet brought enormous changes. Of course, waves never come alone: They bring in shells and rocks and souvenirs from faraway lands. The returning children of exiles brought new cultural trinkets with them in the form of music, words and ideas they picked up as their parents roamed the earth, waiting to come back. That wave also brought in hip-hop, and Chile became a hot scene for the genre. One of its nascent stars was French-Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux.
Tijoux had been around for a while, but most of the world beyond Chile came to know her for her stellar album 1977. It was a deeply introspective, at times melancholy record. In it, she was untangling herself, and it was a beautiful dance to watch. She talked about growing up in exile; about being a writer. Tijoux does what she pleases with the Spanish language, melting it and rearranging it to her liking. Later on, as a guest DJ on Alt.Latino, she told me and co-host Felix Contreras about her love of jazz, and we weren't surprised. The way she refashions language is the same perfect, logical chaos that made me fall in love with jazz in the first place.
La Bala (The Bullet), her next album, was wildly different. True to its name, it's a take-no-prisoners, precise, powerful piece. Tijoux had spent a good deal of time being introspective in 1977, and that had given her the strength to look outwards. And how could she not? The record came out at a time in which Chile was starting to experience a strong popular protest movement — which was met with government repression. In fact, the title La Bala was interpreted by many fans to address an incident in which a young protester was killed by Chilean police.
Tijoux's musical evolution has been mesmerizing because it's so real: She follows no formulas or marketing equations, and every album feels like it narrates a moment in her life. Vengo, or I Come, is a suitably al dente title: not too hard, not too soft, just right to bite into. Tijoux's self-analysis hasn't devolved into narcissism or neuroticism; her anger hasn't calcified into bitterness or preachiness. In fact, she's always asking and searching: "I come in search of answers," she says at one point. "Anxious to learn the untold history of our ancestors." A strong, mature woman, she can calmly love, fight, ask and be happy — and make amazing music in the process.
As relaxed as her approach is, Tijoux is clearly a perfectionist, because the music of Vengo is virtually flawless. The album opens with a stunning track by the same name, an explosion of energy which sets the tone for the music that follows. Her lyrics are about indigenous pride ("our black hair / our high cheekbones"), and so is the music. Throughout the album, Tijoux mixes Andean sounds with hip-hop beats and blaring trumpets. It's so refreshing to hear Andean music — which is melancholy and sweet and effervescent, but often done a disservice by bland "world music" labels — get this treatment. In the feminist anthem "Antipatriarca," Tijoux displays the music of the Andes in all its feistiness and joy. I would have liked to hear more of the jazz Tijoux loves so much, but there are a few mellow, gorgeous jazz tunes to savor here, as well.
Vengo is simply fantastic, and worth savoring through and through. And, if you're in Austin for SXSW, make sure you stop by to watch our intimate talk with the rapper on Thursday, March 13.
Sheryl Sandberg doesn't like a word a lot people and parents use to describe little girls.
In an editorial for The Wall Street Journal, she called it "the other B-word." She says as a kid, she didn't really play with other kids, instead the current chief operating officer of Facebook used to organize their play.
In junior high, Sandberg recounts, a teacher stopped her best friend and told her: "Nobody likes a bossy girl. You should find a new friend who will be a better influence on you."
In an interview with All Things Considered, Sandberg says she is launching a public service campaign aimed at getting rid of the word.
"This is a very negative experience for girls, if you look at my childhood, if you look at the childhood of most of the leaders we talked to, they lived through being told they were bossy," Sandberg said. "And it has such a strongly female, and such a strongly negative connotation, that we thought the best way to raise awareness was to say, 'This isn't a word we should use. Let's start encouraging girls to lead.'"
Sandberg, of course, stirred a ton of controversy last spring with her book Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which she called a "sort of a feminist manifesto." In the book, she encouraged women to "lean in" to their careers, embrace ambition and resist the tendency to hold back when they anticipate challenges in their work-life balance.
As our friends at 13.7 explained, she was criticized for being a successful woman with a lot of money giving advice to women who don't have the same resources. Maureen Dowd famously dismissed her as a "PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots."
This initiative is in some ways simpler. As Sandberg explains on her website, when a boy asserts himself, society calls him a leader. When a girl does it, she is called bossy.
"Words like bossy send a message: don't speak up or take the lead. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood," the website explains.
Sandberg was asked if this was really still an issue, being that girls are outperfoming boys academically. Sandberg said:
"I actually think that we are conflating issues of academic performance and leadership. And in one area, girls are leading, and in one area, boys are leading. And a lot of people are confusing those. And that's why the research has been so important, because it teases those apart. Where girls are definitely leading is they're outperforming boys academically. We see that. They're getting more of the college degrees; they're out-performing in every school. And I think what's happening, is that teachers, parents, people are more worried about boys and there are a lot of good reasons to be worried about boys. We of course want boys to perform academically. When it comes to leadership, when you look at the numbers for student governments, when you look at the numbers for people running for office, when you look at the data asking middle school kids if they want to lead — it's still really overwhelmingly male."
As for what she would tell teachers, Sandberg said:
"I think a lot of these biases are really not very well understood. And we all have them, myself included. And so I think one of the things you're speaking about really comes up which is that, almost every teacher thinks they're calling on boys and girls evenly. No one's trying to call on boys more. But time and again, blind studies show that we actually are calling on boys more, even though we don't realize it. Most parents think they have equal expectations for their daughters and sons, but when they're observed, the language patterns are found that they're actually encouraging their boys more to lead. So a part of the denial of this, that 'Oh, this isn't a problem, this is the old generation's problem,' is part of what we're trying to speak out against. ... In this case, we suggest that teachers do a little audit of themselves — keep track, you know, throw a little data at their own performance so that they can really see what they're doing."
You can hear more of Sandberg's interview on Monday's edition of All Things Considered. Click here to find your NPR member station.
We'll leave you with a little non-scientific survey. We'll post results Monday evening.