1. War on Women, War on Women (Bridge Nine). Shawna Potter is in the lead of this Baltimore band; with guitarists Nancy Hornbug and Brooks Harlan, bassist Sue Werner, and drummer Evan Tanner, she makes the war real and the counterattack irresistible. A harsh wash of blithering riot grrrl noise—in different songs you can hear echoes of Sonic Youth, Sleater-Kinney, the Gits, Blondie on “Rip Her to Shreds”—pushes Potter back, and measure by measure, song by song, she crawls forward, screams out what she needs to say, and is pushed back again. “Roe v. World” reads like a programmatic lesson plan—it starts with a recording of a prissy, bored-sounding teacher offering just that, and then it’s a ferocious version of the Gang of Four’s “Paralyzed,” or an answer record to the Sex Pistols’ “Bodies.” “I had an abortion! I had an abortion! I HAD AN ABORTION!”—Potter is giving a speech against a Led Zeppelin hammer of lesser gods. She’s wilder with every repetition, not toward derangement but maybe a demonstration of how hard it is to be heard when people don’t want to hear what you have to say. Or how you say it.
2. Wailers, “Redemption Song” (Island, 1980). I walked into 1010 Washington Wine & Spirits in Minneapolis; this was on the sound system, but you can’t shop to it. You can’t daydream. You can’t have a conversation. You have to stop and listen, then contemplate how small and incomplete you are, how you’ve failed to leave anything in the world with a hint of the weight of this song.
3. Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book Four, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Archipelago). It’s 1985: the character named Karl Ove Knausgaard is 16 and wants to be a rock critic:
In the evening I browsed through my old music magazines and studied the record reviews and articles. There were three kinds of writer, I concluded. There were the witty, smart, often malicious writers like Kjetil Rolness, Torgrim Eggen, Finn Bjelke and Herman Willis. There were the serious, ponderous types like Øivind Hånes, Jan Arne Handorff, Arvid Skancke-Knutsen and Ivar Orvedal. And then there were the knowledgeable, clear-headed writers who went straight to the point, like Tore Olsen, Tom Skjeklesaether, Geir Rakvaag, Gerd Johansen, and Willy B.
It was as though I knew them all. I really liked Jan Arne Harndorff. I understood virtually nothing of what he wrote but sensed his passion, somewhere deep in the wilderness of all those foreign-sounding words, while every second reader’s letter accused him of being incomprehensible, although he didn’t seem to care, he steered a straight line, further and further into the impenetrable night . . . I had it in me. I just had to let it out.
So he pushes. He focuses. He gets a gig, digs down, writes “draft after draft, scrunched up the rejects and threw them into the growing heap on the floor,” and turns in his review of Tuxedo Moon’s Holy Wars, which appears on the page in full, the dullest record review ever written: “The band explores uncharted territory and discovers new musical paths . . .” You can’t get to the end of the sentence without falling asleep. If Knausgaard is reprinting his own real review in this autobiographical novel, he’s brave; if he made it up for the book, he’s a genius.
4. Scott Blackwood, See How Small (Little, Brown). A novel that comes out of the still-unsolved 1991 murders of four young women in an Austin, Texas, ice cream parlor—fuzzy, floating characters, whether the shades of the dead girls, their families, a reporter, one of the guilty, all of whom seem most of all to want to talk to each other. It’s a fractured dream of blocked gestures—when someone extends an arm to touch somebody else, it’s not the person reached for who dissolves, but the hand of the person reaching. The crime bores holes in the mind of everyone who tries to think about it; Blackwood writes from those holes as if they were his office.
5. Jim Linderman, The Birth of Rock and Roll (Dust-to-Digital). There’s a lot to look at in this big, expansive book of found photographs from across the first sixty or so years of the 20th century—almost all snapshots of people singing, playing, dancing in churches, nightspots, community halls, and most of all parlors and living rooms. There’s a lot to look at because the pictures are alive with the fact that you are encountering singular individuals who passed through the world and left some proof of their physical presence, shadows on paper. Who are these people? the pictures make you ask. Where did they come from, where did they go, what did they want? What happened to the seven-or-eight-year-old couple—a black boy in a suit and tie and a white girl in a party dress, a certain command in the boy’s face, a hint in the corner of the girl’s left eye that no one will every know how happy she is to be right here, right now—after the real world stepped in? What became of the two African-American women, maybe from the 1930s, one with long straight hair, and a fancy pistol on her belt, and a face that says nothing can surprise her, the other more demure, dressed like a flapper, with a face that says she can’t wait to be surprised? There’s a band, maybe from 1957, singer, saxophonist, guitarist, drummer, white guys in the crudest, heaviest, most horrible blackface you’ve ever seen, as if they’re playing a lynching—what would they have to say if they could see themselves now?
6. & 7. Vexx, Vexx (M’Lady’s / mladysrecords.bandcamp.com, 2014) and “Give and Take” (Katorga Works 7” / katorgaworks.bandcamp.com) An Olympia, Washington punk combo—singer Maryjane Dunphe, guitarist Mike Liebman, bassist Ian Corrigan, drummer Corey Rose Evans—that’s been listening to a lot of Avengers. As Vexx now uses it, the sound—more than that, the heedless, physical flight—of the best American punk band of the 1970s carries no dates with it into the present day. It feels like a language anyone might discover when she’s trying to understand what she wants to say and how to say it.
Vexx doesn’t come across like the best of anything: they come across like a band that you might find in any town in the country, telling you what’s going on. The one-minute-twenty-one-second race of “Don’t Talk About It,” from Vexx, might seem like ordinary 1980s hardcore out of the box, but it’s so extreme that all received riffs and voices are spun off by its own centrifugal force within 30 seconds, and before a minute is up you don’t know where the band could possibly be headed. People don’t put this much of themselves into a piece of music just to show they can; to find out if they can, that’s another question. The four numbers on the “Give and Take” EP have more weight than the eight on Vexx, less apparent need for the musicians to convince themselves they mean what they say, less need to write regular songs. All the action is just off the beat, in Maryane Dunphe’s readiness to leap away from it. She’s mapping a zone of freedom. What she can’t yet do is what the Avengers’ Penelope Houston did from her first recorded note: put not just will, desire, and nerve into her music, but personality. You don’t yet hear a whole person, looking you dead in the face, every shift in tone or pace a dare, but you lean forward, because that moment where the mask of style comes off is almost present.
8. Leah Garchik, “Public Eavesdropping,” San Francisco Chronicle (May 17). People at a table in a restaurant: What’s new? “I was waiting to talk to the pharmacist at Walgreens,” says one man, “and the on-hold Muzak was ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ by the Ramones.”
9. Re “Six PEN Members Decline Gala After Award for Charlie Hebdo” (New York Times, April 27) The novelist Teju Cole sent out a letter asking various writers to join him and others who disassociated themselves from an event affirming solidarity with the remains of the Paris journal, which made perfect sense: those cartoons of Muhammad were really gross, and how can one speak for “a Muslim population in France that is already embattled, marginalized, impoverished, and victimized,” as Deborah Isenberg put it in a supporting letter, if one’s hands aren’t clean, especially in the face of work “not merely tasteless and reckless but brainlessly reckless as well” (Isenberg)? “Those who want to misquote or misunderstand will still do so,” Cole said—as if the implication that the pure intentions of himself and those he spoke for could not possibly be questioned by people of good faith were not more offensive than anything the reckless fools at Charlie Hebdo ever published.
10. Stephanie Barber, Night Moves (Publishing Genius Press, 2013). “YouTube Comments” is the second to last song on War Against Women (“These lyrics are laughable!” Shawna Potter quotes more than once). This book, from the songwriter and singer in the Baltimore band Bobby Donnie, is entirely made up of YouTube comments on the Bob Seger song, 75 labyrinthine pages, where predictable and repeating paeans to lost youth (“evokes memories of days gone by”) and lyrics quoted as if everyone reading hasn’t just heard them go back and forth with the blank (“Gina will never know the truth”), the not-so-blank (“uncle touchy puzzle basement”), the passionate (“How can one song bring up such a range of emotions?”), and days-gone-by without goey self-regard (“got me knocked up in 84”). There are subplots involving That 70s Show, How I Met Your Mother, and the “Dislikes” count, which in the course of the book, presumably compiled chronologically, declines steadily from 88 to 75. That’s not much of a shift, but a real drama builds up—either it’s completely random, or you’re actually hearing people’s minds changed.
Thanks to Doug Kroll and Leah Garchik.
Photo of War on Women courtesy Michael Andrande.