* Mark Twain
This is the wind, the wind in a
field of corn.
Great crowds are fleeing from
a major disaster
Down the long valleys, the
green swaying wadis,
Down through the beautiful
catastrophe of wind.
A fragment of writing by James Fenton. I challenge any literature professor to argue this is not a song, or not a poem, or both. Songs live all around us, and go by many names.
We’re deep in the land of power pop (see my recent review of the new Golden Grrrls LP). This time with Brilliant Colors. We’re staying solidly with the female lead-singer sound with this band and their new record, no boy-girl sweetness here. And more classically, the driving force with this band’s sound, from San Francisco, is the blazing guitar riffs played by Jess Scott. The band, started in 2007, is on the road right now promoting their most recent release, “Again and Again” (Slumberland Records, 2011). The press around this band likes to label them post-punk, or hardcore. I hear some of that, especially live, but to my ear, Brilliant Colors still live somewhere in the power-pop universe. Aside from worrying about the best name for what they do, I can admire this new record of energy and clever songwriting.
And it’s Jess Scott who you can’t take your eyes off of (or your ears off of, if you’re spinning the record at home). She sets the pace when playing live, and the pace is blistering. Power pop is a mighty river of music, a sprawling, flexing, mutating thing, with wild waves of cranky DIY primitiveness recorded on lo-fi bedroom gear, gathering in artists across a wide spectrum of styles. Frisky, moody songwriting with lyrics that don’t delve too deep. Their live stage presence is brisk, which is a hallmark of the style, I suppose. Or maybe it’s all their own.
“Again and Again” is one group of songs on record and quite another played live. The record seems quieter, with greater definition of the instruments and song structure. Live, I found Brilliant Colors more punk than anything. Raspy and loud and fast. Part of that comes from a venue like the Tractor Tavern in Seattle, where I saw Brilliant Colors play recently. It’s part of the experience. The small, dark bar with compact stage, basic lighting, and fans pressed in close to the stage. I was a bit disappointed to not get to enjoy Scott’s voice live, because it was lost in the storm of sound. She doesn’t pause to talk to the audience, either. Well, almost never. But the few times she did speak, she kept tinkering with her guitar, which all but drowned out all meaning.
“Again and Again” is one of those records that wakes up an old conversation in my head: the importance of single tracks on an LP versus the album as a collection of songs that reflect and amplify one another, built around something bigger. The LP as an exploration of a range of songs and ideas that all slipstream into a uniform entity. “Again and Again” is an adrenaline rush from start to finish, but so much alike track to track that I find I tune out the individual songs.
I know, “samey” is my problem, not the band’s. And yet it makes it harder to isolate (in memory) the standout tracks from this record, songs like “Back to the Tricks” or “Hitting Traffic.” So, to my way of thinking, this is a record you could easily sample (and be forgiven for it), buy a few singles and have your fix of “Again and Again.” I’m not excited about promoting that idea because I’m old school about LPs and the artifact of music. I enjoy playing LPs through as a whole, until I’ve absorbed what’s going on, and only then pulling out a couple of tracks that sparkle and putting them into my monthly playlist. Having listened to “Again and Again” many times now, I’m conflicted about this as an LP or simply 10 undifferentiated songs delivered as a group.
Still, this is a band worth exploring. Live, they’re formidable: loud, fast, and punk. In a venue with more balanced sound, I suspect they would achieve a higher level of clarity and audience connection. Still, it was worth the price of the ticket to see Scott drive her music home. It’s a sight to behold. And Scott is the band. Like us in the audience, her bandmates all watch her and take their cue off what she’s launching into. It must be a tough job keeping up. It was a tough job just watching.
Chris Pureka writes about choices, those we make and live with, those we wish we’d made and mourn for their absence. This is what fascinates me about Pureka’s songwriting and her finely produced recent records, “Chimera” (Sad Rabbit, 2009) and “How I Learned to See in the Dark” (Sad Rabbit, 2010). A new record is due this spring, but I don’t want to wait to write about her work. I want to start here. See, life is all about choices.
It’s the real mystery of life. The lives we live, not the lives we wish we were living. We build it. We move into it. And sometimes we long for a wrecking ball to swing through everything and smash it apart. Sometimes we want to bring it all down ourselves, sometimes we hope others will do it for us. All because we’ve come to hate what we’ve built. Our lives, if we look closely, don’t hide anything.
It’s easy to long for what we imagine is just waiting for us outside if we could only muster the courage to bring the whole thing down and start over. It’s all an illusion, of course, an illusion I think Pureka fully understands in her soul-searching work. What we have is what we wanted, in the beginning. We just don’t want it anymore, and we need some way to explain why we’re about to smash everything. Why we’re about to hurt people we love. Why we make ourselves suffer. Chris Pureka’s work hovers just over that moment of awakening. It’s a truth that’s hard to talk about. As I look over her lyrics and listen to “How I Learned to See in the Dark,” with its hypnotic music weaving into the story she’s written, Pureka isn’t hiding from herself, or from us.
A few weeks ago, seems like ages now, I went to a show at the Tractor Tavern, one of my usual Seattle haunts, to see bands, take photos of the artists, and escape into the fleeting moment of exchange that is live music. I came for another artist, and I discovered Chris Pureka. Her “band” was just her (unlike the ensembles she assembles for her finely crafted records) and her supporting guitar player, Andrea Alseri (from Los Angeles), but her impact was huge. There are some artists who somehow find ways to connect lyrics to their sound that make the two things into one thing, inseparable. Sera Cahoone does this, and I’ve written about her skills. Now, I can add another to this list, Chris Pureka.
I listen to Pureka’s work at night. It’s music that fits the night, when we’re the most vulnerable to imagined demons. Her lyrics, economical and accurate, seem to pull down the night. Songs like “Wrecking Ball” illustrate my point: “…what I miss the most, is knowing just exactly where it hurts, is knowing just exactly what is wrong.” “I pushed it hard, that goddamn wrecking ball.” Or in the song “Hangman”: “We made the rope, we grew the tree.” These fragile thoughts that come at night take time to understand.
These are not songs about wallowing in what’s wrong, or what’s gone, or what we didn’t do. I think it’s very simple: These are songs about being honest with yourself. No answers, just seeing what is. No life is a perfect construction, even the people you look at and think, “Now, they have it all! Why didn’t I do those things instead of the things I did?” This, from Pureka’s song “Shipwreck”: “I wish I was drunk in the back of that car that was speeding away.” She fully understands it’s not about escaping painful insights, either. Yet, escape is such a seductive idea, isn’t it? A speeding car is all it takes to be free. And someone else is driving. In this song, however, you still have to get drunk to take the plunge, if only in the imagination. But that’s no escape either.
Achingly beautiful lyrics. Not a word misplaced or wasted. Pureka is a versatile musician as much as a writer. She contributes both acoustic and electric guitar on her records. Her voice lays over these songs and lends a sense of longing and an intimacy, like letters written to herself but left for others to find and make of them what they will. Shadow words for her shadowlands.
At the Tractor, Alseri’s Gibson guitar added a haunting, weeping accompaniment to Pureka’s sensitive acoustic rendering of her set. The house was packed and noisy, like all bars. We had to press in close to hear all the feeling these two artists were trying to convey. Now I look forward to the day when Pureka can tour with her full band and be the headliner, so her sound can roll out. She has four CDs, “Dryland” (Sad Rabbit, 2006) and “Driving North” (Sad Rabbit, 2004), in addition to the two I’ve already mentioned. So far her work hasn’t been released on vinyl. It needs to be.
We all make choices. Life presses down. We think we can stop time, just long enough to fix things. It’s just one illusion after another, laid bare in these songs. Desire defeats us every time. “How I Learned to See in the Dark” is a record for seekers. A record for the heart. The real mystery remains. Mirrors versus clocks. What is, and what never was. It’s just the way we live our lives.
Golden Grrrls is a band in a hurry. Their debut full-length LP, “Golden Grrrls” (Slumberland Records, 2013), clocks in at under 30 minutes for everything, both sides. And with their power-pop approach, two of their new songs come in under 2 minutes, with eight more songs under 3 minutes, and only one song breaking into the “long-play” space at 3:08 minutes. This means that when the Grrrls play live, they can pretty well rip through their entire catalog super fast, under 45 minutes, unless they take time to talk to the audience, which they keep brief. That’s barely enough time to get to know them. You’ll have to buy the record so you can spend a little more time with their sound.
Of course, such is the territory of power pop. The genre survives because of its use of hooky rhythms and bouncy, playful themes. The 1970s and 1980s were full of power-pop bands providing what amounts to a generational soundtrack for those decades. Power pop is also a chameleon genre, absorbing other elements as it has grown and developed. It has to change or die. It doesn’t seem to burn out, it just changes shape and rolls in new elements to survive. Which is why, I think, the Grrrls’ live sound comes across as almost punk, thrashing and roaring as it does. Punk and glam rock found their way into the expanded definition of power pop years ago, so the punk edge fits. Bands like Cheap Trick took power pop into the mainstream (I know, I never thought I would mention Cheap Trick in any of my reviews). But roots are roots.
For me, it was the arrival of The Nerves in the 1970s that saved things. How many times has a band from Los Angeles saved modern music? Lots, probably, but that’s for another review. But once the mainstream saw what power pop did to fans, the genre seemed to be everywhere, and nowhere. It sold well. It showed up in the sound of bands like The Plimsouls, The Knack, and The Beat. (I know, now I’ve mentioned The Knack!) Lyrically, the messages seemed to stay the same. Boys and girls, love and lust. Thankfully, we don’t get as many songs about cars as we did then.
The point I want to make (citing these old power-pop dragons) is about production values. The Nerves’ sound, one of the best, is just as fast, built around a blazing guitar and speed, and their production was bright. Super bright. With “Golden Grrrls,” the sound seems muted, blunted, whatever. I almost wish they could find a happy medium between this fine first studio effort and their belt-sander live style. Lyrically, they’re there. Right in the power-pop zone with their boy/girl cheerfulness and harmonizing. It’s sweet. Maybe not that far from a kind of LA sound after all (the Grrrls hail from Glasgow, so well-done on the genre projection).
For me, the most interesting aspect of power pop, apart from its survival after so many years and mutations, and even punk as far as that goes, is what happens to artists who start out wanting to do songs at speed. It sets up a kind of emotional barrier, in my mind, to how far a song can go lyrically toward expressing the full emotional spectrum of life. It all sounds like dance music. I suppose you can dance to anything, but, generally, power pop deals with the flower of youth and young relationships, that kind of thing. He hates me; he loves me; she’s undecided; she’s jealous; he’s cheating. Or friendships. Or not knowing what to say in a new relationship. Or feeling old at 25. Now, that’s alright. As I said, it’s sweet. It’s what we all experience, then move on. It’s a self-focused world that expires quicker than you think, and it can almost be fully explored rather quickly by a band on one or two records. Too much and it can all sound “samey.” Audiences are fickle; they get bored and move on. In the end, I think power pop becomes a trap, forcing artists to leave it behind, or remain at their own peril.
That said, I’m impressed with the level of talent of Eilidh Rodgers, Ruari MacLean, and Rachel Aggs. Especially Rodgers. I have a bit of a thing for female drummers. Power pop often dazzles on the lead guitar, overshadowing everyone else. But with the Grrrls, Rodgers stays in the frame, driving the energy of these super-fast 11 songs as much as MacLean’s guitar does. And it sounds like they’re having a lot of fun doing what they do, dueling and chasing each other’s sound.
The power-pop path isn’t as easy as these bouncy songs suggest. Many have covered this ground. There are memories of past giants creating the style and sound back in the day. Even with all that baggage, the Grrrls have cut out a space for themselves with this frisky launch. The test will be what comes next. Perhaps they’re setting something in motion that will stand apart and be as defining, in time, as the past masters have done. Whatever happens, this is a fun record and worth a look. You’ll be getting in on the flash start with this band. But remember, they’re fast. Super fast. Don’t expect them to slow down for you, or to wait for you to catch up.
You won’t believe this. One camera, one take, music sessions. So many smart people out there finding new ways to share music. What a time to be alive. (A big thank you to Chris Pureka for telling me about this site, which is the vision of Andrea Alseri, a fine guitar player who has toured with Pureka.)