Saturday, November 21, 2015



I was recently invited to submit a piece for consideration on an album review website. The writing prompt was "20 years ago today". I chose not to rework my essay to fit their mission, so I offer it here instead.

Sleater-Kinney (1995) by Sleater-Kinney
the clytemnestri

Sleater-Kinney's 1995 album Sleater-Kinney clocks in at just over 20 minutes, a good solid set for a dive bar, welcome not overstayed, time to break a string or two if necessary. The engineering of the whole is echt mid-'90s garage band, allowing in aspects of live performance sound - the band always essentially the same, amps have hum, the snare drum responds to feedback, count-offs are left in, session sounds intrude. It transpires in a believable place, a room one could imagine being in, restrooms in the back, plastered with band stickers and graffiti. So far, so good; it could be many another album by many another local outfit of the time. It has refreshingly strident feminist politics going for it, but the words don’t account for the punch. It’s a structure first, message and narrative a distant second. It isn’t a haunted house – it’s a house, haunted.

The first song, "Don't Think You Wanna," establishes the vocabulary and the procedure. In each of the first three segments the voice increases intensity and lifts its placement in pitch, staking out three carefully calibrated modes of vocal projection. The first, ‘A’, is a seething simmer, close to the microphone, the second ‘B’, full boil, belted to the back of the hall, the third, ‘C’, a stiletto scream. This is then repeated in a simple 'A B C A B C' pattern. The song ends, truncated, with the 'A' segment, as though it could repeat as many times as wished, while leaving a space open for the next song, "The Day I Went Away," which picks up in a similar 'A'-type vocal space. But here each 4-bar phrase is divided into two parts, with the higher, more intense, 'B'-type vocal joining with ‘A’ on the second half. This doubling functions as an acceleration of the pattern of increasing intensity in the context of the song as a whole, and could be regarded as a new, synthetic, vocal space in its own right. When the chorus arrives, predictably, at 'C'-type levels, the empty spaces between each two-syllable cheer ("So far! . . . So good! . . .") bifurcate the time-span similarly. The lingering effect, in each song, is of a static orbit of vocal modes. The singer is caught in an inescapable loop.

Moving through the album, the stylistic range remains quite narrow. One could, with some ease, group the songs into just a few categories, based on how many vocal modes each contains, and which they are. The first two begin with the close simmer, and increase intensity in steps - we'll call it the 'A-B-C' type. The third song, "A Real Man," is already a bit manic at the start, and has only two vocal projections - a 'B-C' type. "Her Again" is 'A-B-C', but the 'B' is just a hair's breadth above the 'A'. "How To Play Dead" I'll call 'B-C', but things begin to get even more interesting here, with the 'C' a similar interval above the 'B' as ‘B’ was above ‘A’ in the previous song – one could regard it as a long ‘A-B-C’ spread over two songs. "Be Yr Mama" over on what I would presume to be the flip side, if this were vinyl, is 'C-B'. "Sold Out" is essentially 'C-C', with a dip into 'B'. It can be seen that through this point the lean has been toward 'C'.

The next two songs, "Slow Song" ('B-B') and "Lora's Song" ('A?-B'), are easily the most interesting as individual songs, and in the context they act as a retrenchment, as the last bits of near sanity before all mythic hell breaks loose. The tunes are recognizably tunes, even exhibiting some show-off vocal moves, such as the fragment of yodel in "Lora's Song."

ABC, ABC, BC, ABC, BC, CB, CC, BB, AB - each successive song feeds on the types that came before. Each song precisely patterned, each mode of ever so exact a grade. It is the slow circling of subtle variations of these modes among the gathering songs that set the stage for the raw, hot-blooded evisceration of the last song, "The Last Song," the vocal types reduced to just two, the first song’s trajectory telescoped here to 'A-C'; 'A' is teeth clenched, heavy with violence, threatening, close to the mic, and 'C' is a murderous blind rage, Clytemnestra bloodying up Agamemnon across the street in a parking lot at 2 AM.
Tick Tally (by Elaine B)


November 19, 2015
Out Back - Elaine Barkin [from Open Space 3]

Clear and sane. Nothing in this comes up to shake your hand to say hey there hi there I'm here to please. There are some things that might not be things on some walls that may or not form a room or space to be. It's up to you. Even its sense of its own openness is open to alternate thought.

Fired Up - Moe Tucker [from Moe Tucker I Feel So Far Away Anthology 1977-1998]

Keeping it in line. in line. in line.

Banned Rehearsal 413 - February 1996 - Karen Eisenbrey, Keith Eisenbrey, Anna K, Aaron Keyt, Neal Kosály-Meyer

Dynamite opening, as though hovering over a downbeat forestalled past possibility. If we talk at each other long enough we won't notice that we have been left behind by our ground. As it moves along it remains focused all on a center of sound, pressing it together for maximum density at the core. When the center is lost, as they all are eventually, we flail to find a new one. Now we occupy a narrow space, each considering aloud for one's each own self what melody might be. It ends more relaxed, after 46 minutes transpire, but the relaxing is exactly gradual.

In Session at the Tintinabulary

November 15, 2015
Trio 151115 - Keith Eisenbrey

Xylophone, washtub bass, radio. Who could ask for a better ensemble?

November 16, 2015
Gradus 279 - Neal Kosály-Meyer

Pulling at an infinite tangle of weedchoke.

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