MUSIQUE BOUTIQUE: Natalia King, Bitch, and Songs of Yoko Ono

Welcome to Audiofemme’s record review column, Musique Boutique, written by music journo vet Gillian G. Gaar. The last Monday of each month, Musique Boutique offers a cross-section of noteworthy reissues and new releases guaranteed to perk up your ears.

“Well, they call me a hard-headed woman/I tell ‘em ‘I work at it every day’” is the proud, take-no-prisoners opening line from the title track of Natalia King’s latest album, Woman Mind of My Own (DixieFrog Records). It’s an album reverberating with the unvarnished power of the blues — despite most of it being recorded in Paris, where the Brooklyn-born King is now based.

At its heart, the blues is an expression of profound human emotions, and King’s album resonates with deep feeling. “AKA Chosen” is a stirring song of self-empowerment. “Once was part/but now I’m whole,” King sings, as the simple guitar opening gives way to a stomping beat and lively backing chorus. “Forget Yourself” seduces with an insinuating tenor sax solo. “So Far Away” is a compelling portrait of estrangement in a relationship. “Play On” cleverly uses gambling metaphors in its dissection of the game of love, as a moaning slide guitar hints of the danger that may lie ahead. Along with her own songs, there’s also an interesting selection of covers; a reflective rendition of John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses,” and a wonderfully intimate version of George Michael’s “One More Try.”

State of the world got you down? A little Bitchcraft (Kill Rock Stars) will lift those spirits. “You’re the man, you’re the man, you’re the man,” Bitch sings in the song of that name, ending the litany with the telling reminder, “Well, I’m the woman.” Yes, she certainly is. The artist, formerly one half of queercore duo Bitch and Animal, has created an album that delights and dazzles, from the bright pop of “You’re the Man” (with its rallying cry “In the underground, the most amazing sound/We sing through everything that tries to cut us down”) to the stark, brittle sounds that percolate in “Easy Target,” to the soothing harmonies of “Polar Bear,” which imagines the natural beauty of a world without humanity.

She’s as much a visual artist as a musician. Check out the eye-popping video for “Hello Meadow!” – the explosive color and rapid-fire editing match its pointed lyrics attacking the corporate greed that’s destroying the natural beauty of our delicate planet. The more somber “Nothing in My Pockets” dissects the nature of heartbreak with the liberal use of black light and streaks of day-glo paint. Aurally and visually, Bitchcraft casts an enticing spell.

This month marked Yoko Ono’s 89th birthday, on February 18, and in celebration of that event comes a new tribute to her work, Ocean Child: Songs of Yoko Ono (Canvasback Music/Atlantic Records/Chimera Music). The various artists compilation was conceived and curated by Ben Gibbard, lead singer/guitarist of Death Cab for Cutie, in hopes of generating new appreciation for her work.

Ono was originally a visual artist, and, more enigmatically a “conceptual artist,” as demonstrated by such “instructional poems” as this — “Painting To Be Constructed In Your Head: Observe three paintings carefully. Mix them well in your head” (from her book Grapefruit). Not coming from a traditional rock or conventional pop music background gives Ono’s music its unique quality; she’s made up her own rules about how she wants to make music. Hence the nursery rhyme in the middle of “Dogtown,” a song that benefits greatly from Sudan Archives’ cool delivery.

There’s also an undercurrent of sadness in much of her work. It’s understandable in a track like the haunting ballad “Nobody Sees Me Like You Do” (a beautiful performance by Japanese Breakfast), which was written in the wake of the murder of her husband, John Lennon. But it’s also there in “Run, Run, Run,” which predated that tragic event, in which a “run to the light” becomes a “run for your life;” Amber Coffman’s rendition has a decided Americana vibe. Other contributors include U.S. Girls, Thao Nguyen, Sharon Van Etten, and The Flaming Lips, making for an imaginative collection honoring an equally creative artist.  

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