A Japanese magazine wanted to know what kind of food inspires a song by Best Coast, arguably the girl band of the year. So they asked Bethany Cosentino herself, the frontwoman who took in a stray kitten from the street, called it Snacks, and made it into the most famous feline for indie mass consumption of this decade that’s coming to an end, by putting it on the cover of her much awaited first album. And what did Bethany say? Bethany answered: “I don’t know, salad?” Bethany, who also doesn’t mind if they call her empty-headed (“Maybe I am, so what?” she has said), who admires Courtney Love (“She’s not afraid to be herself, and that’s admirable, isn’t it?”) and who leads the boom of girl lo-fi that started last year, in terms of scope and recognition (at this stage of the game it is no secret that “Crazy For You” will appear at the top of the lists of the best of 2010). The boom began to brew last year, when the first demos came out, as well some cassette versions of Best Coast, but the Vivian Girls sound was also consolidated with a fabulous second album: “Everything Goes Wrong”; however, 2010 (nearly over) is when a wave of apparent ingenuousness and three-chord songs has spread contagiously. So Best Coast (in reality, Cosentino and Bobb Bruno) head the ranks of the so-called bubblegum noise, the spearhead of what has happened this year in the girls with guitars/girls on the scene section.
This is a section in which New York against faces off against Los Angeles in a ring measuring thousands of miles— skyscrapers versus highways, sewer steam versus sunscreen. Because if last year, New York played the starring role (Cosentino still lived in Brooklyn, Vivian Girls came out with the small record company Captured Tracks, the quarry from which have come Dum Dum Girls, who are indispensable for understanding this year, not to mention the Catalan group Aias), this year sunny California has scored not just once, but at least four times. Because besides the Best Coast debut, there is also the first LP from Dee Dee and company (the aforementioned Dum Dum Girls), who, although they share their drummer with the Vivian Girls, spend most of their time in Los Angeles. And of course there is the coming out of Warpaint, the girls of “Exquisite Corpse”, who have sought out the help of an ex-Red Hot Chili Peppers (John Frusciante) to give shape to “The Fool”, after-punk passed through the incorporeal (and somewhat sinister) sound mass that Siouxie & The Banshees cultivated. Well, this makes three (and all of them leaning towards bubblegum noise pop) but there is one more: The Like. Three California daddy’s girls (one is the daughter of a producer, another that of a former drummer for Elvis Costello, and the third, of an executive at Geffen) who released a forgettable debut round about 2005 (when none of them had yet reached the age of 18) called “Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking?” (on Geffen, of course); they have come back this year, with Mark Ronson at the controls of an album, “Release Me”, that combines the best of those absentees (yes, absentees, even if they did add a new piece to their catalogue this year), The Pipettes, with bubblegum pop (no noise, in this case) from another time (yes, think of Phil Spector and his girls).
What all of them have in common (besides having grown up on the coast that made David Hasselhoff a lifeguard) is that they forged around themselves (and around the very limited editions of their singles) a legend that’s spread like wildfire on the Internet. The songs (in the case of Best Coast and Dum Dum Girls) leaked slowly (on 7” single format, but also a cassette with three songs) and their editions were so limited that they soon became cult bands. And being a cult band before you have released your first LP is a double-edged sword, because expectation can be both your best friend and your cruellest enemy. It worked for Cosentino, but not so well for Dee Dee and the girls. Judging by how good (pure girl garage) “Yours Alone” sounded (the first Dum Dum Girls EP, released by Captured Tracks), more was expected from “I Will Be”. This, along with the existence of a diva of Cosentino’s magnitude, has (somewhat) eclipsed their debut, a bit less compact than “The Fool” from the more sincere, stranger Warpaint.But the explosion has been so big that the remains of the shrapnel have even hit the heart of Barcelona, allowing a girl group that started out as a birthday present move (in terms of record companies) to Brooklyn to release their first album. Aias had instinctively, from a distance, followed the do-it-yourself model of the Americans, and thanks to a friend of a friend in New York, they managed to get one of their tracks heard in the offices of Captured Tracks. The rest, with “A la Piscina”, their first LP, at the head, is history. Three girls from Barcelona who sing in Catalan and perfectly fit into the bubblegum noise pop label revived by Vivian Girls and given its definitive push by Best Coast, are already being listened to in the most “in” bars in the big apple. Who said that genies with magic lamps don’t exist?
In any case, as Cosentino said at the time, all of them (including the Aias) dreamed of sounding like “the drums of the Beatles, the guitars of the Ramones, and the voices of Phil Spector.” And in their own way, they have achieved this. But let’s not forget the lyrics. For Marnie Stern, hailing from outsider metal pop (a lover of her guitar and of ceaseless tapping, up and down the frets), what Cosentino and all of these girls from Los Angeles do “is nothing special.” The lyrics (which are, effectively, lost, time and time again, like Sandy Olsen, waiting for a phone call from the not-at-all-perfect handsome prince) seem “too simple, silly” to Marnie. But hasn’t Marnie ever heard The Crystal sing “He Hit Me and It Felt like a Kiss”? Don’t be mean, Marnie, maybe the girls are only sticking to the old style, serving up an old fashioned like the ones Don Draper drinks, in a glass that Rick Deckard, the star of “Blade Runner”, would use if he did something more than chase replicants and feed his mechanical dog.
But let’s talk about Marnie. Because she is also on the list of girls who have turned the world upside down this year. She has released her best album (the self-titled “Marnie Stern”) and taken a step forward with her pop featuring guitars that aim and shoot balls of fire in the form of arpeggios that could turn a hard rocker (electric) soloist wannabe as white as a sheet. Her role is that of the lone ranger howling in the desert, with dusty spurs and pistols blazing (in the form of a guitar). She shares an audacious spirit (always going against the current) with former child prodigy (squeezed by the mainstream) Robyn, who has broken her silence this year (she hadn’t put out an LP since 2005, when she founded her own record company, Konichiwa Records), fulfilling the promise of three albums (the most intimate and pop, “Body Talk Pt 1”, the most danceable and outspoken “Body Talk Pt 2”, and finally, the best of it all and a handful of other songs, the imposing “Body Talk”). Yes, the girls are warriors, although in the case of top model Karen Elson, they may arrive with the sponsorship of husbands with a rep as tough guys (Jack White, no less). Her debut album, “The Ghost Who Walks”, contained at least three unforgettable songs, but it lacked the confidence that time (and good relations with an increasingly personal sound) have given to “Outlaster”, the latest album from Nina Nastasia, the grunge singer-songwriter produced by Steve Albini, also released in 2010, making it her best album.
But if we’re talking about lone rangers, the first one on the list is that lover of Martian folk, Joanna Newsom, who can make anything that she touches into a major work of art. Her last album, “Have One on Me”, a real “Ulysses” (by James Joyce) wrapped in piano and harp, a triple album (lasting over two hours) with twisted otherworld juggling that explores (and expands) the conventional limits of the song (and which makes listening to it like taking a Russian nesting doll of chamber pieces apart with a sweet, ingenuous smile). A group who also dedicate themselves to playing with the limits of the (pop) song are Mountain Man, three girls from Vermont who met in high school and slowly began to construct their weird folk with three voices (which overlay each other, seek each other out, and at times even lose each other); this year the sound has been packaged for the first time in an album, the delicious “Made the Harbor” (Bella Union). Mountain Man is from Vermont (east coast) and they aren’t very into the beach. What kind of food inspires their music? Um, something very American, but not as much as a hamburger, maybe a strawberry milkshake (duly served up at a roadside diner). Yes, it’s been a wonderful, tasty year.
Next page: Ten Indispensable Albums Of This Year From The Girls.Ten Indispensable Albums Of This Year From The Girls
1. Best Coast: “Crazy For You” (Mexican Summer) One of the albums of the year. Dirty lo-fi pop, with surf ancestry and a girl band soul. Sort of like the wild side of Martha & The Vandellas, a treatise on waiting by the telephone (for example, the incomparable first song on the album, “Boyfriend”), delicious love notes lasting barely a minute and a half (or the delicious temporary insanity of “Crazy for You”) and adorable grunge outbursts (“Summer Mood”).
2. Dum Dum Girls: “I Will Be” (Sub Pop) In less than half an hour (barely 28 minutes), Dee Dee and company outline what the girls of today understand by garage (punk) pop in eleven vertiginous cuts. Richard Gotteher’s (The Raveonettes) production smoothes the rough edges of the debut EP (the formidable and purer “Yours Alone”) and catapults this band, who took their name from a song by Talk Talk, towards the Olympus of wild girl bands.
3. Aias: “A la piscina” (Captured Tracks) What started out as a game has turned into a contract with Captured Tracks, the cool label of the girlie outbreak in Brooklyn. Aias are three friends who wanted to record a couple of songs to give to their boyfriends, and who have ended up releasing a bubblegum noise (pop) album in Catalan, “A la Piscina”, which has become a small underground phenomenon. It’s enough to listen to the cut “Una Setmana Sencera” to discover that what they have is something more than pop with distortion and whoa whoa whoa.
4. Marnie Stern: “Marnie Stern” (Kill Rock Stars) What Marnie does is unique. She plays the guitar like the wisest (and most audacious) of the hair metal soloists, but she doesn’t limit herself to constructing a solo (like they do), rather exploring her own particular tapping (at times, on two frets) in small masterpieces of melodic (and corrosively progressive) pop. This is her third album and undoubtedly the best. That is why she has given it her name.
5. Warpaint: “The Fool” (Rough Trade) They aren’t in the front line of girl lo-fi headed up last year by the second album from Vivian Girls, but they should be. What they do is create ethereal (and also a bit sinister) ambient ‘scapes, but they also put out hits like “Billie Holiday” to the rhythm of high-class after-punk.
6. Mountain Man: “Made the Harbor” (Bella Union)What they do is folk, weird folk with three voices. The girls of Mountain Man met in high school, in a tiny town somewhere in Vermont, and they all learned to play the same song. They did it again and again until their voices crossed in this delicately smiling Americana sound that has become their trademark, and which fills every corner of “Made the Harbor”, their first album.
7. Joanna Newsom: “Have one on me” (Drag City) The return of the freak folk diva par excellence has surpassed (in a sense) its predecessor, the Martian, intensely lovely “Ys”. If that album was water and the melodies came and went like waves on the ocean (Newsom says that her albums always have something to do with the elements), this is an earth album, an earth album for piano and harp that once again explores the limits of folk with a warm, innocent, uncontrollable ambition.
8. Nina Nastasia: “Outlaster” (Fat Cat) The singer-songwriter who loved difficult sounds (and who hated choruses) has released her best album (a short distance from“Blackened Air” and “Run to Ruin”), once again produced by Steve Albini, and constructed on the arid desert of her broken heart. Nastasia sounds painfully sad, as always, accompanied by a violin and a guitar. A new ode to emotional instability (or a rollercoaster of feeling) from a survivor (or outlaster).
9. The Like: “Release Me” They aren’t The Pipettes, but they seem like it. They sound like the Ronettes, the Supremes, and like everything that Phil Spector could have touched at another time. “Release Me” is their second LP, and it is light years away from the first (“Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking?”). It might be that when they put out the first one, they weren’t much older than fifteen. Or maybe it’s because they signed up Mark Ronson (responsible for Winehouse’s “Rehab”) to produce the second one. A delight.
10. Robyn: “Body Talk” (Konichiwa-Universal) Five years of silence are broken with three albums in a single year sharing the same title, which balance each other perfectly, like Soderbergh’s stars planning bank robberies. Electropop with dancehall roots (in the first part) and something more urban, danceable, and compact as well (in the second), not to mention epic acoustic songs that become the best balsam for weekend discotheques. Yes, Robyn has come back to present her candidacy for the title of current greatest pop diva for the masses.
Next page: Marnie Stern interview.Marnie Stern A Strange BirdShe isn’t as twisted as the early Polly Jean (she doesn’t play out-of-tune violins and avoids disoriented howling), nor as dreamy as the early Kristin Hersh (before becoming a mother and going off alone with her guitar, the mind behind Throwing Muses did a lot for girl noise), but she exploits her dark (and psychotic) side without worrying what other people think. Marnie Stern can drink three beers over the course of an interview and name her second album this: “This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is that and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and that Is that” (Kill Rock Stars, 2008). Marnie adores Macs, and if she weren’t a guitarist she would have liked to have been an inventor. Of what? Anything. She lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and when she goes out for a walk, she passes Times Square, the Chrysler Building, and the HBO studios. But she doesn’t go out much. She hates to socialise. She’d rather play the guitar. There was a time when she practiced up to six hours a day. “There are a bunch of great guitarists out there but I never modelled myself on any one player in particular,”she says. But not everyone shares her opinion. Just over thirty years old, she is considered one of the best guitarists of all time. And also a fashionable hater. In one interview, she said that Best Coast wasn’t such a big deal, and the cyber-sparks flew. “The only thing I said is that I didn’t like her lyrics, that they seemed too simple to me, that’s all,” she later excused herself. It didn’t help much. Her reputation as a strange bird preceded her. This is the fame that keeps her far removed from the flashes of the girl garage rage that has taken Bethany Consentino and all the others to the top. That fame and her music, which is of course light-years away from three chords and high-school lo-fi music. If Marnie’s sound had to be defined, it would be enough to consider her the missing link between Hella and Ponytail; that is to say, it’s aggressive pop with a metal root (and guitar virtuosity). “The first record I listened to obsessively was Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”. I listened to all the details and I remember it was the first time I could hear all the individual instruments as opposed to just vocals and drums,” she says. She was probably on the balcony of her apartment, maybe having a beer and watching the sun set (something that she claims she does whenever she can), while typing on her beloved Mac. “I picked playing guitar for no particular thing. I just found the confidence to go for it and put in the practice that it takes to get better at something. I also wanted to write songs and I happened to choose the guitar as my instrument for that,” she assures. She has just released her third album, which she called “Marnie Stern” because “I was pretty confident in his batch of songs and I think this is my most fully realized album to date,” and also in part because “the title was also a reaction to the long title of the last record which everyone asked me about so often,” referring to “This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is that and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and that Is that”. She was fed up with talking about it, as she is with talking about how strange it is for a woman to play the guitar like she does. From here came the writing of “Female Guitar Players Are the New Black”. “It was meant to be a tongue in cheek statement since I get asked about being a female guitarist so much. It's silly to focus on gender as opposed to the playing itself and the songs themselves.” Of course, hers does, and not in vain; her album is probably the most well-aimed rock hit of the year, along with “Expo 86” by Wolf Parade. The thing about Marnie is that she knows what she’s talking about. “Maybe the only thing about me is that I’m older than all of them, and maybe this is why what they are doing doesn’t seem like such a big deal to me,” she said, just after the attack on Consentino’s lyrics. By vocation, she is clearly self-taught (and progressive: if Marnie had been born in the 70’s, today she would have a place among the classics that perverted hippy rock for the better) and solitary (it was always her and her guitar, leaving high school and much later, while she was working at any old job), Stern had already turned 30 when she released her first album (before that, she had sent demos all over the place): “In Advance of the Broken Arm” (Kill Rock Stars, 2007). The album, an aggressive noise pop treatise (always with a metal root, you only need to see Stern hit a couple of frets of her guitar with her fingertips to notice her bizarre kinship to Slash), was considered “the most exciting rock album of the year” by the New York Times. That is to say, while Consentino was deciding whether she wanted a pet (the famed Snacks who appears on the cover of “Crazy For You”) or not, Stern was already an outsider of the future explosion of girl bands that was brewing.
Marnie adores Patti Smith. “I recently read her biography and she really puts herself fully into her music and she’s a really intense artist and I admire that,” she says. And if you ask her to choose between Best Coast and the Vivian Girls, she answers, without hesitation: “I really like St. Vincent and I think her confidence and strong sense of self and complexity really comes across in her music.” In her small flat on the Upper East Side, which she currently shares with her dog, she plays David Bowie, The Police, Sleater-Kinney. Nothing new. “Bands like Hella, Lightning Bolt or The Flyin Luttenbachers were huge inspirations for me and they sent me in that mathy direction. I am pretty isolated from any scene and don't really go out that much.” As we said, a strange bird.