Feminist Sweepstakes, Le Tigre (Mr. Lady)
Kathleen Hanna is probably the most interesting and vital pop-music figure of the last decade that most people reading this haven't heard of. Hanna's current band, Le Tigre, is a poppish project that acts as a musical counterpoint to the cathartic noise of her seminal '90s punk band Bikini Kill. Mixing new wave, punk, hip hop, and disco, Le Tigre's musical approach is gentler and more "grown-up" than Bikini Kill's was, but, as the title of this new record indicates, the band's political agenda is no less explicit.
At first, Feminist Sweepstakes sounds a little flatter than previous Le Tigre projects. An EP from earlier in the year, From the Desk of Mr. Lady, was more galvanizing, more directed at the outside world. By comparison, Feminist Sweepstakes is more like a preparatory memo to the band's core audience and comrades-in-struggle, bucking them up for the revolution to come. The album may not have as much sure-shot songwriting as the group's eponymous 1999 debut (nothing here as undeniable as that album's "My My Metrocard" or "What's Yr Take On Cassavetes?") or seem as desperately communicative as From the Desk, but it may ultimately be an emotionally truer and more moving album.
The first two-thirds of Feminist Sweepstakes is sort of a guided tour of Le Tigre's world. "LT Tour Theme" opens the album by way of an introduction to the band's mix of leftist politics and pleasure-intensive sound ("For the ladies and the fags, yeah/We're the band with the rollerskate jams"). There's a visit to "Dyke March 2001" ("We recruit"), a slinky bit of subcultural list-making on "Fake French" (inspirational boast/sexual come-on for liberal arts grads: "I've got extensive bibliographies"), an oddly endearing bout of burnout on "Much Finer" ("Got a to-do list behind my eyes/So go tell your friends I'm still a feminist/But I won't be coming to your benefit"), and "F.Y.R." (aka "Fifty Years of Ridicule," or what the feminist movement has been unjustly subjected to), an angry, propulsive, blowout anthem where the band announces, "Feminists we're calling you/Please report to the front desk." This litany of political complaints can be invigorating or frustrating or both depending on your own political outlook (I say amen to the rightly rude "Can we trade Title IX for an end to hate crime?/RU-486 if we suck your fuckin' dick?," but there are plenty of us on the left who think making reparations is a silly idea), but it leaves little doubt that Hanna is still one of rock-and-roll's great screechers.
Feminist Sweepstakes really finds its voice on the album's final third. If the pre-9/11 From the Desk was a bullhorn blare, Feminist Sweepstakes sounds suitably post-9/11 with its mood of after-the-fall regrouping. This section begins with the album's real anthem, the compassionate, community-identifying "TGIF." This affectionate shout-out to core fans, who are likely to be underemployed and ethically at odds with much of the larger culture, is very affecting. "In five years you won't remember getting fired/Or whatever," Hanna counsels at the outset, "And until then and forever/I'm proud to be associated with you." The tone set, a transcendent chord change pushes the song even deeper, into a reassuring chant of "We will survive as thieves/We will survive as freaks." "My Art" follows, Hanna demonstrating the defiance "TGIF" calls for. Hearing her move effortlessly from the staccato mockery of "And if you ever wanna adventure" to the swooning beauty of "If you ever want a fashion show/I'll walk right on yr block" confirms that she's every bit as savvy a singer as she is a screamer.
The unlikely "Cry For Everything Bad That's Ever Happened" -- two minutes and 40 seconds of piano, static, muted horn, and wordless vocals -- acts as an elegy and sets up the raucous, anthemic finale, "Keep On Livin'," on which Hanna and company send a restored faithful out to keep up the good fight. -- Chris Herrington
Once We Were Trees, Beachwood Sparks (Sub Pop)
Massachusetts' Beachwood Sparks make music strictly by the blueprint of what Gram Parsons called "Cosmic American Music," an amalgam of country and folk traditions coupled with a '60s psychedelic-rock aesthetic. Such an influence is by no means rare; artists as diverse as Uncle Tupelo, Beck, and Sheryl Crow have followed this same rubric, but few artists, especially in the indie-rock arena, adhere to this influence with such a narrow focus.
On the quartet's second album, Once We Were Trees, their proto-hippie sound has an eerie time-capsule quality to it, a dustiness that warrants some respect for their discipline even as it smacks of nostalgia. "You Take the Gold" and "The Sun Surrounds Me" could have been long-lost B-sides from the Byrds, and "Old Manatee" sounds like obscure Grateful Dead.
The album would be unbearable if Beachwood Sparks didn't occasionally thread some '90s indie rock into their '60s tapestry. A breezy, sincere version of Sade's "By Your Side" is the kind of sweet declaration of love that never goes out of style, and on the stand-out track, "Let It Run," a lonely pedal-steel guitar imbues the verses with a sleepy shoegazer grandeur that approaches breathtaking.
In fact, Once We Were Trees sounds most compelling and effective when the band doesn't party like it's 1969. The more perfect their mimicry, the more trivial they sound. But when they check the calendar and note the year, Once We Were Trees blossoms. -- Stephen Deusner
Gold, Ryan Adams (Lost Highway)
Sometimes you can judge an album by its cover. On the front of Gold, his second solo album after last year's Heartbreaker, former Whiskeytown frontman Ryan Adams, clad in ragged denim and an oh-so-stylish '70s retro T-shirt, strikes a self-consciously unself-conscious pose before an upside-down American flag. It would indeed be something remarkable if this were a shout-out to Patton, but it's just another singer-songwriter defining himself as the new Bruce Springsteen.
That's a bold claim for any artist to make, but Adams has neither the songs nor the voice nor the fervent belief in rock-and-roll's redemptive powers to live up to his own album cover. His image as a hardcore troubadour (to use Steve Earle's old phrase) is just a careful construct -- like Slipknot's masks or 'NSync's "dirty" pop. Role-playing is admittedly a fundamental aspect of rock-and-roll, but it must allow the artist's own personality to show through. Adams seems to have little personality beyond his persona, so his claim to sincerity makes his music all the more disingenuous.
With its pretensions not-so-cleverly disguised as earthy realness, Gold lacks luster. It's a surprisingly dull album, its songs either too similar, too bland, too forgettable, or, in the case of "SYLVIA PLATH" (caps not mine), deeply emetic. In fact, the most painfully outstanding aspect of Gold is Adams' voice, which takes on a series of affectations that are alternately cloying (the Muppets falsetto in "Somehow, Someday") and embarrassing (the staccato phrasing of "Answering Bell").
In the realm of American rock-and-roll, of course, Adams is not the Boss. He's not even a supervising manager like John Mellencamp. And if there's any justice in the world, sonically similar but far superior artists like the Old 97's and Marah will get corner offices while Adams is stuck in his little cubicle. Ultimately, Gold is a low point in the very inconsistent career of a singer who is very insistent of his own talent. -- SD