News Column

St. Joseph News-Press, Mo., Shea Conner column

November 22, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 22--If you read this column every week, you might recall my declaration of love for the band Haim four weeks ago. Well, I'm not the only who hopped on that bandwagon. The trio of sisters now has two singles in the Billboard Top 50 and they'll be the featured musical guest on "Saturday Night Live" this weekend.

Ever since Adele and Florence + The Machine made their commercial breakthroughs a couple of years ago, female artists have played a much larger role in the often male-dominated alternative music genre. Haim is just the latest benefactor.

Alternative acts Cvrches and MS MR have also proven to have staying power with the hits "Mother We Share" and "Hurricane," and this summer, Lorde scored a big hit with "Royals." With seven weeks at No. 1 on the Alternative Songs chart beginning in August, "Royals" passed Alanis Morissette's 1995 anthem "You Oughta Know" as the longest-reigning leader by a woman in the chart's 25-year history. By the way, it was also the No. 1 song in the world for a week.

If you read this column every week, you also may remember that I don't really care for the song "Royals" or anything else Lorde has done, for that matter. The 17-year-old singer's incendiary lyrics don't overshadow the fact that she, too, is making a blatant grab for the pop rings with a manufactured artistic image and mid-tempo Beyonce-style beats. Other than a little vocal talent, there's not much of a difference between Lorde and Lana Del Rey.

What I find more problematic, however, is that Lorde is getting a lot of press in a year when so many female or female-fronted alternative artists have recorded fantastic albums. If you've tapped your toes to "Royals" or gorged yourselves on Haim's "Days are Gone," go ahead and take a listen to these awesome alternative upstarts from 2013 as well.

Austra, "Olympia"

I saw Austra for the first time at SXSW in March and was immediately drawn to the six-piece band's ability to blend bass-heavy dance tunes with tones of mysticism and lyrics that both mourn and obsess. It was a sonic spectacle. It was as if a girl with a broken heart stumbled upon woodland fairies partying in the forest and started writing songs with them.

In many ways, this Canadian group's sophomore album accurately represents that feeling I had in Austin. "Olympia" sounds like an amalgamation of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "It's Blitz!," Class Actress' "Journal of Ardency" and Florence + The Machine's "Ceremonials." It's a collection of layered, sexy, gothic songs inspired by house music and synth pop, and they're all vessels for lead singer and songwriter Katie Stelmanis' soaring, haunting vocals. More than anything, "Olympia" proves that electronic pop can have surprising depth.

Listen to: "Forgive Me," "Home" and "Painful Like"

Laura Marling, "Once I Was an Eagle"

When Rolling Stone critic Will Hermes wrote the review of this album, he wittingly opined that Marling was "miked so close you can smell the cigarettes on her breath; it's sultry, wise, rueful and unapologetic, connecting a 1960s singer-songwriter tradition to the ache of the now." I feel like anything I'd write after that wouldn't do the album justice, but I'll try anyway.

The first seven songs of this 16-track album reach into your soul with the delicacy of a hurled brick. With just an acoustic guitar and little else, she moans about a tortured relationship that nearly drove her to suicide. The percussion, cello and organ make more of an impact as the album rages on and she explores her loneliness. Bob Dylan fans and those who love Nick Drake's "Pink Moon" should definitely give this a listen.

Listen to: "Master Hunter," "Little Bird" and "Take the Night Off"

Savages, "Silence Yourself"

This album has been getting a little more love -- by the likes of Spin, Pitchfork and Rolling Stone -- than the others listed here, but the often weird "Silence Yourself" doesn't exactly have the same radio appeal as the others.

This London band's debut is a ferocious post-punk rocker and a total throwback to the "we don't give a damn" era of the late '80s and early '90s. And much like the bands Savages was clearly inspired by (My Bloody Valentine, Joy Division, etc.), their music is an acquired taste. It's dark. It's primal. It's twisted. But, most importantly, listening to "Silence Yourself" is an empowering experience.

Listen to: "Waiting for a Sign," "Strife" and "Shut Up"

Waxahatchee, "Cerulean Salt"

Melancholy punk gets the power-pop treatment on this sophomore record by Alabama guitarist Katie Crutchfield, better known by the name Waxahatchee. However, it's her admirably honest songwriting that deserves the spotlight.

Through much of the album, Crutchfield anxiously approaches and skewers the ideas of marriage and tradition. She thinks of these things as tragedies more than honors. In "Swan Dive," for example, she confesses that "dreams about loveless marriage and regret" keep her up at night. As a songwriter, she proves to be quite daring and unabashed. The sweet music is just the icing on top.

Listen to: "Peace and Quiet," "Swan Dive" and "Coast to Coast"

Shea Conner can be reached at shea.conner@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @stjoelivedotcom.

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