MUSIQUE BOUTIQUE: Laura Love, Low, The Sweet Inspirations, The Beths

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

Laura Love is the kind of performer who doesn’t readily fit into any one category. Her songs have elements of folk, funk, pop, blues; Love has called  her style “Afro-Celtic.” Her albums feature everything from a Nirvana cover to the ballad “Wayfaring Stranger” to “Amazing Grace.” She was a member of the satiric feminist band Venus Envy; her 2018 album She Loved Red was a searing depiction of recovering from personal loss.

When COVID hit, Love went into semi-retirement, “feeling satisfied that I’d said and done all I needed to say and do.” Then came the insurrection of January 6th, 2021, which galvanized Love into new musical action: Uppity is the result.

The acoustic sounds (dobro, banjo, harmonica) provide a deceptively mellow backdrop for an album that’s a powerful, stirring indictment of racial injustice. “You make me feel like a Nat Turner woman,” is Love’s jesting response to the white rioters she saw overwhelming the Capitol last January in “The Heart of Nat Turner.” In “23 and Me” she explores her own mixed-race history, as seen through the eyes of a young slave woman. The pain of dealing with “sexism, racism, and all the other isms that keep me up at night” runs deep. In “Gentle,” Love sadly admits, “I just don’t know how to mend; “It’s gonna take a long time for us to be fine” is the similar sentiment in “To Be Fine.” But there’s hope as well, in the uplifting “Bayou,” and a wonderfully freewheeling duet with Ruthie Foster on a cover of the Beatles’ “Two of Us.”

Low creates otherworldly sounds like you’ve never heard. Some have attempted to categorize the music of the husband-and-wife team (Alan Sparkhawk, Mimi Parker) by dubbing it “slowcore,” which is hopelessly mundane. Low are sonic shapeshifters, manipulating sounds and crafting them into something unexpected.

On Hey What (Sub Pop), the only element not subject to distortion are Sparkhawk and Parker’s voices, their harmonies serving as a kind of life raft to hang onto in the midst of a surging maelstrom. The heavy, industrial noise that opens the album might make you feel like you’re in for a rough ride. Not so. There may be some occasional turbulence, but there’s a mesmerizing purity in the vocals that provides a soothing balm. This is especially so on a song like “Days Like These,” which begins with the lush sound of the two singing acapella, before a blur of white noise fragments the soundscape.

At over seven-and-a-half minutes, “Hey” is a stately choral piece of symphonic scope, a slice of meditative ambience, classical music beamed in from another dimension. Hey What stretches musical boundaries in a way you never dreamed was possible.

The Sweet Inspirations built their reputation by providing backing vocals for Dusty Springfield, Van Morrison, Wilson Pickett, and Petula Clark, among numerous others. Their horizons expanded when they toured and recorded with Aretha Franklin, and they gained an even bigger audience when they became Elvis Presley’s vocalists until 1969, working with him right up to the day he died (they were waiting on a plane headed for that night’s concert in Portland, Maine, with other band members, when they learned of Presley’s death).

They also released records in their own right, and Let It Be Me: The Atlantic Recordings (1967-1970) (Soul Music Records) covers their most commercially successful period. Myrna Smith, Estelle Brown, Sylvia Shemwell, and Emily “Cissy” Houston (Whitney’s mother) were previously members of such renowned vocal groups as the Drinkard Singers, the Gospelaires and the Gospel Wonders. So they have a natural affinity for hymns and spirituals like “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “Down by the Riverside.” But they also had the kind of commercial appeal that led the singles “Sweet Inspiration” and “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)” to find crossover success on the soul and pop charts. This fine collection allows the Sweets to take center stage and let their sublime voices shine.

You can hear the excitement in their voices. Not the voices of the band — the voices of the audience, who are clearly thrilled to be at an actual live concert again. That energy is then naturally picked up by the band — the Beths — and reflected back to the crowd, resulting in a powerhouse performance on their live album, Auckland, New Zealand, 2020 (Carpark Records).

The Beths (Elizabeth Stokes, lead vocals/guitar; Jonathan Pearce, lead guitar/vocals; Benjamin Sinclair, bass/vocals; Tristan Deck, drums/vocals) were home in New Zealand in early 2020, preparing a tour for their upcoming album Jump Rope Gazers. Then the pandemic hit. Performance continued via live-streaming. But there’s nothing quite like being there in person.

From the opening blast of “I’m Not Getting Excited” to the last beat of “River Run: Lvl 1,” the show is one rollicking blast of power pop fervor. Catchy hooks, toe-tapping rhythms, a warm lead vocal backed by cool harmonies — it’s the total package. But tune into what’s being sung, and you’ll find that the bright musical spirits are matched by more downbeat lyrics. Stokes says that’s the intention; “Sweetly sung melodies and super depressing lyrics” are what she aims for. Love’s turmoil is the primary subject; in “Future Me Hates Me” Stokes dreads the inevitable fallout of succumbing to romance (“Future heartbreak, future headaches”), while in “Uptown Girl” she dips into unrequited longing. Then the peppy melody takes over and you know those blues won’t be sticking around for long.

MUSIQUE BOUTIQUE: Tele Novella, Lael Neale, Lau & Dusty Springfield

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

Tele Novella hails from Lockhart, Texas (33 miles south of Austin), and their music is so multi-faceted it almost defies description. “Coin-operated medieval pop songs through a 1960s western lens” is how their Twitter bio puts it, which gives you some idea. They take country, pop, indie, and folk, and twist it all into delightfully unexpected shapes.

“Words That Stay” is the striking opening number of the duo’s new album, Merylnn Belle (Kill Rock Stars). On the surface, it sounds like a song about a lost love. But Natalie Ribbons’ dry, husky voice has enough bite in it that you’re left unsettled. Something’s not quite right here. Something’s a little off-center. And that’s the hook that draws you in.

The album’s homespun sound is the result of recording on an 8-track cassette deck. Neither Ribbons or her co-collaborator Jason Chronis were keen on doing many overdubs, so minor mistakes were left in, and the use of vintage microphones adds further atmosphere. This record takes you into another realm. “Paper Crown” is a surreal nursery rhyme. “Crystal Witch” is a spooky fairy tale. The soft-shoe shuffle of “Technicolor Town” is the closing lullaby that sends you off to sleep with Ribbons howling like a wolf. Imaginative, captivating and intriguing.

Lael Neale also opted for simplicity in making Acquainted With Night (Sub Pop), recording on 4-track cassette, accompanied only by an Omnichord (an electronic instrument that produces both chiming music notes and pre-programmed beats, and is smaller than a keyboard). There’s a delicate gracefulness to the songs, even as they touch on sadness and longing. The beautifully-titled “Every Star Shivers in the Dark” is a song of aching vulnerability, with such haunting images as Neale waving to a man in a prison tower, though there’s a glimmer of hope by the end.

“How Far Is It to the Grave” is another evocative song; mortality, as seen from the perspective of a child, a lover, a banker, a slave owner. Neale’s empathetic, crystal-clear voice makes the song sound like a prayer, lifting it from despondency. The title track is a shimmering, seductive number about how very different things become under the “cold, white shape of the moon.” And “Some Sunny Day” is a song of farewell, of looking back and having no regrets as the sands run out. Neale’s lyrics also have the elegance of poetry: “I’ve known the sand that made the pearl inside my mind.”

Anyone whose tastes run to synthpop/synthwave has likely crossed paths with Lau (aka Laura Fares) over the past decade. The Argentinian-born musician relocated to the UK at the age of 17. After years of working as a session drummer, DJ, and teaming up with Nina Boldt on the albums Sleepwalking and Synthian (credited to “Nina featuring Lau”), she’s now stepped out on her own as a solo artist, with her debut album, Believer, released on her own Aztec Records label.

The album kicks off with “Stunning,” an instantly catchy track that’s one of the most effervescent breakup songs you’ll ever hear; it’s a smooth, streamlined, fuel-injected ride to freedom, an “I Will Survive” for the 21st century. The deluxe version of the album also features a “Popcorn Kid Nocturnal mix” of the track, reworking it into a slower paced, sultry ballad. There are remixes of four other album tracks as well. The soulful “True” is presented in three versions; an original, ethereal mix, a decidedly poppier “Luke Million Remix,” and a more dance-oriented “Austin Apologue Remix.” Indeed, Lau conjures up such a mesmerizing groove, it’s easy to forget that the album’s theme is the fallout generated by the end of a relationship. The rock-steady, electronic beats of “Recognise,” “Unable,” and the cover of HAIM’s “Now I’m in It” are sparkling sweet treats.

From 1969 to 1971, Dusty Springfield recorded some of her best work for Atlantic Records, moving from the pop songs that had made her a star to the soul music she’d always loved. On Dusty in Memphis (1969) she was backed by the legendary “Memphis Boys,” an informal group of studio musicians who played on hit records by Neil Diamond, Merilee Rush, and Wilson Pickett, among others, and the equally acclaimed Sweet Inspirations, the all-female backing group who recorded with the likes of Aretha Franklin and Van Morrison, and toured with Elvis Presley in the 1970s. On A Brand New Me (1970), she worked with noted songwriting/production team Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff (“Me and Mrs. Jones,” “Love Train,” and “When Will I See You Again,” to name a few). The best-known song from those years is of course Springfield’s classic rendition of “Son of Preacher Man,” with “The Windmills of Your Mind” running a close second. Now all of Springfield’s Atlantic 7-inchers have been compiled on The Complete Atlantic Singles 1968-1971 (Real Gone Music). Only eight of the 24 tracks have appeared on CD before, in their original mono mixes. It’s wonderful to hear sterling non-album tracks like “I Believe in You” and “Haunted” in such suburb quality.

PLAYING SEATTLE: Tacocat Celebrate Friendship and Sub Pop Signing with “Grains of Salt”

Effervescent pop-punk band Tacocat released their new single, “Grains of Salt,” on Valentine’s Day, complete with a colorful music video featuring prominent members of the Seattle drag community. “Grains of Salt” is the first single teasing their third full-length album This Mess is a Place—following 2014’s NVM and 2016’s Lost Time—due out in May and currently available for pre-order.

Tacocat has a history of writing addictive hooks as palpably gleeful and upbeat as they are insightful into the long-term, close-knit friendship between the band members—singer Emily Nokes, bassist Bree McKenna, guitarist Eric Randall, and drummer Lelah Maupin. “Grains of Salt” is no exception. Nokes explains that “Grains of Salt” is about “being a good friend to yourself, turning off the external bullshit for a bit, landing the backflip, and just generally taking yourself back… Loving or even liking yourself can be really hard work, and wondering what is ‘normal’ in comparison to whatever else becomes such a drag. This was just a sweet reminder to myself, and to everyone.”

Keen to capture that vibe visually, the music video for the song puts playful self-acceptance, humility, and their love for each other and their community on full display. Lending a hefty dose of glamour and glitter to the mix are some of Seattle’s brightest drag stars, including Irene Dubois, Cherdonna Shinatra, Cucci Binaca, Connie Merlot, Mermosa, Umlaut, Dion Dior Black, and Beau Degas. Tacocat is in their element – a party where they can dance like no one is watching.

“We never wanted [the band] to be something that jeopardized our friendship or our understanding of one another’s needs,” said Nokes. “We’ve all had super high points and super low points and taking care of each other is what comes first; like any long-term relationship, having that empathy, tenacity, and deep respect for one another is what makes it work. We’re basically family at this point and are in the unique position to understand each other’s experiences in a way not many other people can—we’ve grown up together in this. And our mantra is: We’ll stop doing it when it stops being fun.”

“Grains of Salt” is also unexpected in some ways, too. Though upbeat, it feels slightly more melancholic and self-reflective than past releases.  For instance, in the first verse, Nokes sings, “Wasting so much time/Only knowing doubt/Falling in a line/Only facing out/What do they even know?/Gotta let it go.”

Nokes says that darker vibe is a reflection of the hard time in which they wrote and recorded the album. “This was our first post-election album so it was obviously a pretty jarring time to try and even begin the process of… well, processing,” she said. “I didn’t really want to make it super sad or super angry—even though those are such valid emotions—but even those emotions were hard to access under all the numb. Personally, I felt awful for a lot of different reasons, the world felt awful, all my friends and community were just in such rough shape it felt weird to try and express anything, or be creative at all. But, like every art or writing project for me, I have to come at it like it’s a riddle or a puzzle to solve, and just work on it, or give it space, until it clicks.”

Despite the rough timing, “Grains of Salt” is noticeably more polished and produced than any of their other tracks. Nokes’ voice projects confidently and smoothly and is mixed even more out-front than on 2016’s Lost Time. This is a nod to their brilliant producer, Erik Blood, and to finding a way to warm up her voice well, Nokes said.

On Lost Time we were just getting to know Erik, and now I feel lucky to count him as a close friend,” Nokes said. “That familiarity was really helpful… just knowing that I could get in there and do my thing and not feel as nervous or shy or intimidated or dumb really helped build confidence.”

One notable moment in the video also helps announce some more of the band’s good news—guitarist Eric Randall does an understated jig in a Sub Pop sweatshirt. It’s a sort of shout-out to their new deal with the legendary Seattle label, which was announced along with the release of the single.

“We grew up on Hardly Art—I think we were signed to the label in 2012—and have been so proud to watch the label flourish. We love them. But in some ways it just felt natural to check out what the next step might be,” said Nokes. “We’ve worked hard, we’ve been doing this a long time, and getting signed to Sub Pop was a dream I could have never imagined when we first started this band!”

In this way, “Grains of Salt” is a reminder of what can happen when you find and hold on to your individuality—and your friends—as you unfold and evolve. It all rings especially true at the song’s climax, when Nokes belts, “Don’t forget to remember who the fuck you are.”

This Mess is a Place is out May 3 via Sub Pop. Check out “Grains of Salt” below and catch Tacocat on tour around the US in May and June.


5/9 – St. Paul, MN @ Turf Club
5/10 – Milwaukee, WI @ Cactus Club
5/11 – Chicago, IL @ Lincoln Hall
5/12 – Grand Rapids, MI @ The Pyramid Scheme
5/13 – Pittsburgh, PA @ Club Cafe
5/15 – Cambridge, MA @ The Sinclair
5/17 – Brooklyn, NY @ Music Hall of Williamsburg
5/18 – Philadelphia, PA @ Boot & Saddle
5/19 – Washington, D.C. @ U Street Music Hall
5/21 – Durham, NC @ The Pinhook
5/22 – Atlanta, GA @ The Drunken Unicorn
5/23 – Nashville, TN @ The High Watt
5/24 – St. Louis, MO @ Off Broadway
5/25 – Kansas City, MO @ The Record Bar
6/8 – Seattle, WA @ The Showbox at the Market
6/12 – Spokane, WA @ The Bartlett
6/13 – Boise, ID @ Neurolux
6/14 – Salt Lake City, UT @ Kilby Court
6/15 – Denver, CO @ Larimer Lounge
6/17 – Dallas, TX @ Club Dada
6/18 – Houston, TX @ White Oak Music Hall
6/19 – Austin, TX @ Barracuda
6/21 – Sante Fe, NM @ Meow Wolf
6/22 – Phoenix, AZ @ Valley Bar
6/23 – San Diego, CA @ The Casbah
6/25 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Bootleg Theater
6/26 – San Francisco, CA @ The Chapel
6/28 – Portland, OR @ Aladdin Theater

LIVE REVIEW: Chad VanGaalen @ The Empty Bottle, Chicago

Chad VanGaalen Jonathan Fisher

With his Lynchian aesthetic and fondness for romanticized macabre, Albertan singer-songwriter Chad VanGaalen performed a simultaneously tender and surreal set to a buzzy crowd at Chicago’s Empty Bottle last Thursday.

On tour with fellow Canadians COUSINS and Bry Webb of Constantines fame, VanGaalen’s performance brought a crushing sense of heartfelt sentimentality filled with his signature warble and fuzz-ridden lo-fi recordings, which continue to drive the sound of his most recent release, Shrink Dust. Drawing upon stylistic elements reminiscent of 2008’s lurid Soft Airplane and 2011’s spasmodic Diaper Island, VanGaalen’s latest effort is still peppered with hypnagogic lyrics, wind-in-the-willows whispers and enough synthesized reverb to swallow the entire room.

Lyrics full of allusions to disemboweling deaths and ghastly implications plucked straight out of an Un Chien Andalou-induced fever dream, VanGaalen is brilliant at fusing different melodic styles ranging from gentle, whirring balladry to rambly steel guitar folk. And despite a marked lack references to oozing vitreous humor, VanGaalen’s off-kilter banter in between songs, earnest smile and sweet, rambling stories made up for any disappointment involving a flashier stage presence and more of his renowned homemade instruments.

A true “mixed media” artist in every sense, VanGaalen blends soft acoustic strumming with jammy electronic interludes, creating what many have dubbed a “grab-bag” of melodies plucked, diced and sliced from his many garage recordings. And his live performance held much of the same intimacy and intensity as one of these DIY jam session. Simultaneously grotesque and gorgeous, his wavering vocals projected perfectly across a simmering crowd of what seemed to mostly be composed of long-time fans.

I myself have fond memories of making “Molten Light” mixtapes for high school beaus, and was just one of many audience members singing along to the surprisingly thorough repertoire he performed. Of course, there were songs off Shrink Dust, but VanGaalen made enough room to incorporate old favorites like “Rabid Bits of Time,” “Willow Tree” and “City of Electric Lights” into his set, a rare treat for artists usually more concerned with promoting their latest release. And though I realize that speaks more to my own personal affinity to Soft Airplane, it truly was a genuine, heartfelt performance by a singer-songwriter who has the strange ability to invoke an incredible sense of nostalgia occupied by crust punks and tweed-donning professor types alike.

An excellent show for the devotees of his back catalogue, it pulled off the unforeseeable feat of being both beautiful and bizarre and everything in between. A wistful, touching performance that may have showgoers, old and new, incorporating “Molten Light” and “Monster” into their future mixtapes.

TRACK OF THE WEEK: Chad VanGaalen’s “Where Are You”


Alberta, Canada’s Chad VanGaalen is set to return with his fifth studio album, Shrink Dust  (his first solo release since the 2011 record, Diaper Island) on April 29 via Sub Pop Records. “Where Are You” is the second track on the upcoming record. The song is lo-fi and a bit bizarre, as per VanGaalen’s usual work, placing us in sci-fi territory with spaced out sound effects layered over VanGaalen’s near-yell of “Where are you.” It’s an extremely interesting listen—catchy in the least obvious way possible.

Listen to the track on Soundcloud, or watch the accompanying video below, with amazingly weird animations galore!