Tag Archives: Janet Weiss

All Hands on the Bad One – Sleater-Kinney

All Hands on the Bad One, Sleater-Kinney’s fifth album, seems nowadays not to be one of their most highly thought-of records, but it’s always been my favourite of theirs. Any number of Sleater-Kinney records give you righteous anger, interweaving guitar lines, the interplay of Corin Tucker’s ferocious wail and Carrie Brownstein’s nasal sneer, and powerful, inventive drumming from Janet Weiss, but no other S-K album is leavened with as much humour and stylistic playfulness.

Sleater-Kinney was formed in 1994 by Tucker and Brownstein as a side project from their main groups, Heavens to Betsy (Tucker) and Excuse 17 (Brownstein). Heavens to Betsy, particularly, were a well-known and influential riot grrrl band, so Sleater-Kinney were a supergroup of sorts. (I listened back to Heavens to Betsy’s album, Calculated, while working on this. It’s startlingly visceral; you don’t hear indie music so obviously angry these days. We could do with more of it.) Their first couple of records were scrappy affairs – the songwriting was still fairly primitive, and the band a little shaky.

Shakiness disappeared entirely when powerhouse drummer Janet Weiss joined. Weiss had been in a San Francisco band called the Furies, then formed Quasi with her husband Sam Coomes. A self-taught drummer, she evolved a frantic style built to fill out the sound of the skeletal bands she usually played in (both S-K and Quasi had no bass player and were lacking in low end compared to other bands). By the time of All Hands on the Bad One, Weiss had been with Sleater-Kinney for two records already, and the band was essentially fully evolved and as wide-ranging as it would ever be. While Was it a Lie and #1 Must Have (which explored the way that riot grrrl was discussed by mainstream media) could have been on any S-K album, the likes of Leave You Behind – the sweetest, most vulnerable ballad, the group ever wrote – the self-explanatory You’re No Rock ‘N’ Roll Fun and Milkshake & Honey, the group’s riff on the idea of modern-day Sun Also Rises-style expats in Paris, could only have appeared on of All Hands on the Bad One.

One Beat and The Woods, the last albums the group made before going on a 10-year hiatus, were responses to 9/11 and Bush-era America, and as such, they were defiant, largely humourless affairs. While they had half a dozen great songs each (and, it should be said, found favour with a lot of people who hadn’t been into their earlier music), I found myself disappointed by them as albums. I loved the band most when they mixed the goofy, the heartfelt and the furiously political. All Hands on the Bad One is, for that reason, essential.

I’ve not really investigated the music the band has made since they reformed. Lots of bands that have gotten back together recently have made great records, so I’m sure I’ll catch up at some point. I’ve followed the furore about their new album and Janet Weiss’s decision to leave the band, and what I’ve heard of the new music suggests it’s a fair way away from the sound of the band as I knew it. Nevertheless, I’m open to it. After all, they already showed on All Hands On the Bad One that they could cover a lot of stylistic territory.

Featuring “Birds” – Quasi

Featuring “Birds” is one of my very favourites. When it came out in 1998, it sounded like no other album I’d heard. Sam Coomes wrote fragmentary, snarky little songs with immediately memorable pop melodies, and then buried them in huge, gunky layers of distorted Rocksichord (a chintzy electronic keyboard from the late 1960s). Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney’s drummer), meanwhile, played drums with frantic, nervously twitchy energy, but with the confidence to fill every available space in the songs.

The album sets out its stall immediately with Our Happiness is Guaranteed. Weiss plays a syncopated pattern with improvised rapid-fire fills while Coomes makes as much noise as possible, segueing into the song proper via a series of tone clusters (there’s a melody in there, but the harmonies applied to it seem to be a result of keyboard mashing) and a brief riff that recurs prior to every subsequent verse. The song, when it begins, is a sci-fi fable with a sing-song melody, which Weiss harmonises sweetly. The whole thing is over in under three minutes.

The tension between the group’s melodies and its casual dissonance and sonic aggression made the music thrilling to me, as did the unconventional song structures (many tracks are just a verse and a chorus, or even just a verse on its own) and Weiss’s gonzo drum fills, which sounded like her mind was only a stroke or two ahead of limbs and she didn’t quite know where she was going to go next. The musical tension may well have been fed by personal tension, too; Weiss and Coomes had been married but were already separated by the time of Featuring “Birds”, and as the group were a two-piece, there was no one else to defuse things when they got heated. I imagine the rehearsal studio was an interesting place to be at times.

The album is full of songs like Our Happiness is Guaranteed – wonky little tunes that are definitely pop, but that are skewed by Coomes’s sardonic delivery and the group’s full-bore commitment to its sonic aesthetic. I Never Want to See You Again, California (with its hilarious intro: “life is dull, life is gray/at its best, it’s just OK/but I’m happy to report/life is also short”), the surprisingly poignant I Give Up and Nothing from Nothing are all gems, and Please Do shows that Coomes could even rival his friend and sometime bandmate Elliott Smith with an acoustic guitar in his hand and nothing but his fingerpicking to fall back on.

Alas, the group couldn’t repeat the trick. Field Studies, from 1999, was a less frantic affair all round, and saw the group diluting its signature sound with more electric guitar and piano, less distorted keyboard, and more bass guitar (courtesy of a guesting Smith). It also saw Coomes’s chippy observations losing their freshness and becoming dulled by his reliance on unvarying end rhyming and repetitive melodic phrases. I checked out after Sword of God, which suffered even more badly from the same problems (and also sounded rubbish, as the group had recorded themselves), and never really picked them up again. But I still come back to Featuring “Birds” and would recommend it unhesitatingly to anyone with any love for 1990s indie.

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 7 – I Give Up – Quasi

My last few posts have been in praise of drummers who played for the song. The strength of Earl Young’s performance on Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time) is the well-placed, authoritative backbeat. The more I’ve played with drummers as a songwriting guitarist, or as a drummer with another songwriter, the more I’ve valued that skill. While the title of this series of posts is slightly tongue in cheek, the skill involved in playing a simple groove with precision and a good feel that works for the song is something I’ve come to appreciate more with each passing year.

Teenage wannabe drummers don’t get it, of course. It’s all about notes per second. I understand that. I do. As a teenage guitarist, I considered myself above appreciating ‘shred’ guitarists, being more attracted to noise-mongers on one hand and ‘feel’ players on the other. But as a music fan who understood a little bit about drums from playing bass in a high school band, I loved to hear drummers playing loads of really cool fills, preferably ones with a lot of notes, so to speak. And in 1998-99, no one I listened to played more cool fills than Janet Weiss, particularly on the Quasi album Featuring “Birds”.

It sounded like no other record I’d heard. Sam Coomes wrote fragmentary, snarky little songs and then covered them in huge, gunky layers of distorted Rocksichord. Janet Weiss’s drums, meanwhile, were frantic, full of nervous twitchy energy, but with the confidence to fill every available space in the songs.

Quasi were a 2-piece – organ/vocals and drums/vocals – so there was a lot of space. Weiss had no bass player to lock in with, no lead guitarist to give room to. In any other style of music, to play as Weiss did on Featuring “Birds” would have to be considered overplaying. With Quasi, she had almost no restrictions, even fewer than with Sleater-Kinney, so the fun in listening to Featuring “Birds” for me was the wacky shit Weiss would throw in there.

I Give Up is a great example of their Featuring “Birds”-era style. It starts off with a melodic theme played by Sam Coomes on the organ with the right hand on the organ, no vocals, while his left hand plays a wandering, rising-and-falling bass line. The tone is distorted, and there’s some fun dissonance in there to stop everything sounding too perky. The B section, arrived at via a big fill from Weiss, is still eighth-note 4/4, but based on a five-bar pattern, and with a pushed accent and a huge fill that starts halfway through the fourth bar while the organ holds an E chord. After repeating this four times, the feel shifts to triplets and the drums temporarily stop. Coomes begins singing in his nasal monotone while Weiss harmonises on top. Lyrically, the song takes an unexpected turn for the serious:

They say ‘Hold on to your dream’
That plays good on TV
But never worked for me
Now I need to find a way to occupy my time
Until the day I die
‘Cause I give up
I give up
It’s gone so wrong, so long
It’s gone so wrong
So long, so long
I give up

Concision was the great strength of early Quasi, diluted when Coomes tried to play his former Heatmiser bandmate Elliott Smith’s game and adopt conventional song structures and lengths. I Give Up says more in its 11 lines than anything on Sword of God, When the Going Gets Dark or American Gong. But anyway, back to Janet Weiss. When she comes back in, it’s with a shuffle pattern on floor and snare, at the line ‘Cos I give up’. Then, at the song’s emotional climax (‘It’s gone so wrong, so long), she lifts the song by shifting back to a full triplet pattern on hats and, after that, ride. The key thing is that at each point of the song’s journey from its playfully circular and twisting beginning, through its goofy middle section to its unexpectedly poignant ending, Weiss always does the right thing: when the openings are there to be filled in the middle section, she fills them confidently, vigorously and with a sort of quizzical aggression. You get the sense her mind’s only a stroke or two ahead of limbs and she doesn’t quite know where she’s going to go next. But when she has to rein it in and give space to the lyric, she’s just as adept. Indeed, with Elliott Smith and the Go-Betweens, Weiss has shown she’s more than capable of backing more classic singer-songwriters than Coomes, her former colleagues in Sleater-Kinney and her illustrious post-S-K employers, and with the frankly impossible Drumgasm (a drum trio record with Matt Cameron and Zach Hill) behind her, I’m intrigued to see who she’ll team up with next.

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Janet Weiss c. 2000-ish?

Some of you may be interested in hearing some of my own recent work. Here you go!:

Bye Bye Pride – The Go-Betweens

I find something endlessly adorable about the Go-Betweens. Not naturally gifted as songwriters, and certainly not gifted as players or singers, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan succeeded more or less on hard work and the strength of their aesthetic. Each of their albums contained 10 small-scale indie-pop songs, five by each writer, Forster’s hipster smart-arsery balanced by McLennan’s winsome sincerity, but all determinedly low-key. In such a setting, a little detail can be overwhelming in effect.

Forster is usually seen as the artier Go-Be, a sort of Brisbanite David Byrne figure – a rock ‘n’ roll renaissance man. Yet it was Forster who was always the wannabe musician. McLennan, on the other hand, was a keen literature student and aspiring film-maker, and had to be badgered by Forster into forming a band with him. From the off, Forster had his sound down. He’d get better at the execution, but at the start of the band’s career Forster already knew how best to deploy his limited singing voice and what kind of songs he could write. McLennan, by contrast, was still learning. He went on to become the band’s craftsman, yet his initial lack of technical know-how perhaps prevented him from becoming the true pop songwriter he often seemed to want to be: no amount of hard work would turn him into Paul McCartney. Even his best tunes get by with only four or five notes and the same number of chords.

Nonetheless at his frequent best (and indeed the same is true for Forster) he could take his very simple building blocks, his Play in a Day chord changes and semi-spoken tunes, and make gold out of them.

By the time the release of Tallulah launched the Go-Betweens mk II – for which Forster, McLennan, drummer Lindy Morrison and bassist Robert Vickers were joined by Amanda Brown on violin, oboe and guitar – McLennan was straining at the edges of his talent, alternating between lovely pop songs and darkier, moodier pieces, generally succeeding but sometimes falling hard on his face. Tallulah’s Cut it Out is a notorious example of a McLennan failure: an attempt at electro-funk that suggested an attempt to play Cameo at their game. Hope then Strife is a more interesting misstep: semi-spoken verses, with flamenco guitar, and choruses largely alternating between two notes, backed by Brown’s violin, linked by a brief but lovely half-time section where McLennan’s tunefulness makes itself present (“Don’t say that you agree/With the price that you pay for your captivity”).

So Tallulah was an up-and-down record for McLennan, and most of the album’s best songs are Forster’s (my pick of them is I Just Get Caught Out). But McLennan had a couple of heavy hitters. Right Here and Bye Bye Pride, for my money the last great song he wrote before the Go-Betweens broke up for the first time (his contributions on their first last album, 16 Lovers Lane, feel a bit hollow to me, lacking his usual depth, as if he wrote happy love songs less well than sad ones). Bye Bye Pride pairs a repetitive, Lennon-esque tune with one of his finest, most closely observed lyrics:

 A white moon appears like a hole in the sky
The mangroves grow quiet
In the Parisi de la Palma a teenage Rasputin
Takes the sting from her gin
“When a woman learns to walk she’s not dependent any more”
A line from her letter, May 24
And out on the bay the current is strong
A boat can go lost

I like the details at the start of the second verse, too: “Turned the fan off / and went for a walk / by the lights down on Shield Street”. At his best, McLennan was as good a lyricist as his more celebrated partner, with a knack for accumulating detail quickly and unobtrusively.

But Bye Bye Pride is a record, not merely a song, and no appreciation of it as a recording would be complete without acknowledging the contributions of Amanda Brown on oboe and backing vocals. Forster, in the midst of his rock-star-as-vampire era, could not have given McLennan the emotionally open, optimistic harmonies the song needed.

Sadly for long-time fans, when the band reformed, Brown wasn’t part of the crew; she and McLennan had been lovers and she was hurt that McLennan and Forster has taken the decision to the end the band without warning her first (she went on to a successful career arranging strings for R.E.M., Silverchair and others). Female backing vocals had become such an important part of the band’s sound, though, that they needed someone to fulfil that role when the band reformed. Initially, Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss (and Corin Tucker on a couple of songs) were on hand to supply them, before bassist Adele Pickvance joined the band for its last two records.

For a band that had seemed as reliant on the chemistry between Forster and his former partner Morrison as that between Forster and McLennan, a band that had been so enhanced by the contributions of Amanda Brown, what a welcome surprise it was that their comeback albums were so strong. With Finding You, Boundary Rider and No Reason to Cry, McLennan left us with some of his finest songs before dying in his sleep of a heart attack in 2006.

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Grant McLennan, with sincere eyebrows, c. 1984?

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Go-Betweens c.1986, l-r Robert Vickers, Lindy Morrison, Grant McLennan, Amanda Brown, Robert Forster