YEAR END LIST: AF’s Guide to Riot Grrrl’s Influence in 2013

Body/Head at St. Vitus

It is a goddamn golden age for girl-fronted punk.  It’s not that there haven’t been important works by women in the ensuing years, but 2013 saw a Riot Grrrl Renaissance unlike anything since its early ’90s inception.  Back then, Kathleen Hanna had to make safe spaces at Bikini Kill shows for female attendees by calling out aggressive dudes.  The ladies at the forefront of the movement had to blacklist the mainstream media that painted them alternately as fashion plates, dykes, or whores (sometimes all three, and always with negative connotations; it shouldn’t be implied that to be any of these things is bad or wrong in the first place).  By all accounts, they “couldn’t play” anyway, so the medium and its messages were barely worth discussing as anything more than a passing trend.  Meanwhile, riot grrrls preached their radical politics one Xerox at a time.

If the wisdom of these women seemed to skip the generation that adored Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time” without criticism, it has finally come full circle in a way that feels vital and urgent now.  Not only are we as a culture stepping up to finally examine sexism and exploitation and appropriation within the industry, there are more acts than ever completely unafraid to do their own thing – be it overtly political (see: Priests) or revolutionary in its emotional candidness (looking at you, Waxahatchee).  Maybe it has to do with direct influences of stalwart ensembles like Sleater-Kinney and Bratmobile, and maybe it’s a thing that’s happened gradually as those first voices carved out room for other female performers (for instance, in establishing Rock Camps for young female musicians throughout the country, a project that initially came about through discussions and direct action in riot grrrl communities).  There’s no way to make an inclusive list of all the phenomenal bands (punk or otherwise) now blazing their own trails through their various scenes but taking a tally of at least a few of these acts felt like a necessity for me as someone whose entire life was informed by music like this, and girls like them.  And because fifteen years after I discovered it for myself, 2013 feels like one giant, celebratory dance party/victory lap.


If 2013 is the year female-fronted punk broke, it has to be said that not all 90’s era veterans burned out or faded politely away.  In fact, two of the grunge scene’s most influential women put out intensely personal releases this year.

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Kathleen Hanna Kim Gordon
Hanna and Gordon in 1994’s “Bull in the Heather” video

Body/Head, Kim Gordon’s noise project with Bill Nace, created a moving exploration of feminine and masculine tropes in the form of a noise record.  I wouldn’t want to reduce Coming Apart to a document of her split from long-time partner Thurston Moore, but the whole thing feels every bit as raw and awkward as a life change that catastrophic must have been.  It’s Gordon’s most powerful, wild moments in Sonic Youth distilled down and then blown up.  Her vocals can sound desperate and strained at times, but this is ironically the most forceful aspect of the recordings – the anger and the vulnerability existing together in all its anti-harmony.

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Body/Head at St. Vitus
Kim Gordon and Bill Nace perform as Body/Head in June at St. Vitus

Likewise, Hanna’s record is not a chronicle of her late-stage Lyme Disease, the chronic illness that forced her to quit touring with socially-conscious electro outfit Le Tigre (for that, check out Sini Anderson’s brilliant Hanna doc The Punk Singer) but a testament to the triumph that creating it had over her sickness.  Reviving her moniker from ’97’s bedroom-recording project Julie Ruin by adding a “The” to the front and four incredible musicians and co-conspirators at her back, the band released Run Fast in September.  It manages to meld every one of Hanna’s prior sonic sensibilities, burnishing the the dance-punk of Feminist Sweepstakes with the sass and cacophony of The Singles and adopting the confessional tone of that first solo record.

This is riot grrrl all grown up; though neither project should necessarily bear that particular label, it feels like a continuation of the story that in turn validates its importance.  And the influence of Gordon and Hanna and others of their ilk can certainly be heard in a whole host of bands with break-out records that landed this year.  Again, it’s not that anyone in these bands are running around calling themselves riot grrrls, just that they’d be right at home on a playlist with bands who did (and bands of that era, from Red Aunts to Discount to that dog., that demanded my affection as equally).


Katie and Allison Crutchfield have been making music since they were teenagers, most notably in P.S. Elliot before splitting up to pursue creative projects as separate entities.  Katie released American Weekend in 2012 and Cerulean Salt in March, Allison released a self-titled record with her band Swearin’ last year and followed it up with Surfing Strange a few months ago.  The girls are mirror twins, meaning they’re identical but that their features are reversed in some instances, and that’s a good approximation of how their musical projects merge and divide.  Cerulean Salt is stripped down sonically and hyper-focused on thematic subject matter, dealing directly with her family history and its personal stories.  Swearin’ takes a music-making approach more classic to pop punk, its subject matter just as earnest but with a broader focus.  The two have reunited for one-off projects (like an incredible cover of Grimes’ Oblivion for Rookie Mag) and live together in Philly with their boyfriends (both of whom play in Swearin’).  In interviews and in their song lyrics they espouse feminist ideas unabashedly and have talked openly about finding inspiration in the riot grrrl movement.

Speaking of Alison’s boyfriend, Kyle Gilbride produced girl-punk supergroup Upset’s debut album, She’s Gone, out this year on Don Giovanni.  Uniting Vivian Girls contemporaries Ali Koehler and Jenn Prince with Patty Schemel of Hole, She’s Gone is a quirky collection of catchy, rapid-fire jams that at first listen might come off as slightly superficial.  But at the crux of the record is the idea of examining female experience, in particular the formative teenage years, in which break-ups and female rivalry loom large.  Taking what might be written off as juvenile and giving it its due importance in song is what makes the album both accessible and relevant.  If it seems precocious to compare one’s dreams to a dinosaur, at least it validates them by re-calibrating the scale.

Don Giovanni put out another astounding release in The Worriers’ Cruel Optimist.  Fronted by Lauren Denitzio of Measure, the project seeks to combine her interests in literature, art, and queer activism in a way her past musical projects have not.  Over hooky guitars and crashing drums, Denitzio talks about privilege in feminism and the need to re-evaluate personal politics with growing older on “Never Were”, references Jeanette Winterson as a way to talk about androgyny and gender identity on “Passion”, and ruminates on the toll that conservative politics took on a personal relationship in “Killjoy”.  The album closes with “Why We Try”, a triumphant reminder of the reasons these discussions still need to happen in music and elsewhere.  “If we expect something better / things won’t just move forward / Remember why we try“.

In talking about New Brunswick’s esteemed DIY circuit, we’d be remiss to not include Marissa Paternoster, active for several years now in the punk scene there, releasing work under solo moniker Noun as well as with her band Screaming Females.  It’s the latter’s most recent release, Chalk Tape, that sees the band going in some very interesting melodic directions with their particularly searing brand of guitar rock, recording most of the songs without revisions based around concepts scrawled on a chalkboard.  Paternoster’s commanding vocals, gliding easily between out-and-out aggressive and tender, looped sophistication, paired with her exceptional guitar work, make Chalk Tape a tour de force.  Here’s hoping a few misguided Miley fans accidentally stumbled on the wrong “Wrecking Ball”.

Nestled in another well-respected DIY scene, Northampton-based Speedy Ortiz represent a collective of 90’s-era rock enthusiasts with a poet at the helm.  Sadie Dupuis feels more comfortable behind a guitar than on open-mike night, but the lyrics she penned for Major Arcana and delivers with brass are practically worthy of a Pulitzer.  Razor sharp wit, slyly self-deprecating quips, and vitriol marked by vulnerability characterize the general tone of the record, its particular lyrical references so nuanced and clever it begs about a million listens.

Potty Mouth sprang out of the same scene when Ally Einbinder, frustrated with the difficulties of booking shows and playing in bands with men who rarely asked her input when it came to songwriting, decided to form and all-female punk band.  Einbinder and her cohorts are frequent participants in Ladyfest, which has sought to showcase feminist artists across different mediums for thirteen years running.  Bursting with energy and attitude, Potty Mouth’s debut Hell Bent calls bullshit on punk scene bravado, questions obsessive tendencies, encourages punk girls in small towns “it-gets-better” style, and delivers acute, sharp-tongued kiss-offs to any doubters.

Though the pun alludes to classically trained harpist and witchy-voiced weird-folk patron saint Joanna Newsom, Alanna McArdle and her compatriots in Joanna Gruesome stray pretty far from that reference point.  Instead, the UK band cherry-picks from shoegaze, twee, and thunderous punk with Adderal-fueled ferocity.  McArdle is a study in contradictions, one moment singing in a sweet-voiced whisper and the next shouting psychotically, often about crushing skulls or some other, equally violent way of expressing her twisted affections. The group met in anger management, and every second on Weird Sister sees them working out some deeply seated issues, the end result proving what a gift anger can be.


This particular calendar year, it seems, is only the beginning.  With a record crate’s worth of amazing releases from 2013, there’s a bevvy of bands with bandcamp profiles, demos, EPs, cassettes and singles that hold a lot of promise for future releases.  Across the board, when asked how their bands formed or when they started playing, the response is “I wanted to do it so I got a guitar and I just started playing.”  The DIY ethos and “fuck it” attitude are what make these projects so vital and exciting.


The DC group are explosive live, in particular thanks to Katie Greer’s spastic growl and Daniele Withonel’s revelatory drumming.  The band’s been known to spout off about anti-consumerism between songs, out of breath from the high-energy set, but there’s plenty of radical content in their self-released tapes, too.  Those searching for manifestos need look no further than “USA (Incantations)”, a spoken-word bruiser that skewers the non-inclusive founding of America and ends with “this country was not made for you and it was built on lies and murder”; it kind of makes me want to vote for Priests for president.  Elsewhere on Tape 2, Withonel steps from behind her drum kit to flip the script on the male gaze, with perfect Kathleen Hanna pitch. Whether they’re singing about Lana del Ray or Lillian Hellman, these self-described Marxists provide an electrifying listen.

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Perfect Pussy

Perfect Pussy plays notoriously brief shows – if you blink during their set, you’ll miss ’em – but all have played the Syracuse scene for years now.  The quartet got a lot of attention this over I Have Lost All Desire For Feeling, a four song EP with walls of guitar fuzz and synths and some forceful vocals from Meredith Graves buried low in the mix.  Trained in opera but trying out punk, she’s said that because she’s insecure about her singing they’ll likely stay that way when the band records a full length.  But it’s not because she’s trying to hide her words – you can read them by clicking through each song on Perfect Pussy’s bandcamp.  They are well worth extracting from the sludge, coming across like a Jenny Holzer send-up of rape culture, mixed in with some personal meditations on growing past a female betrayal and catharsis through relationships thrown in for good measure.
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Ellen Kempner writes off-kilter lyrics that perfectly distill the wonder and worry that comes with being a teenager, but with a wise, almost nostalgic tone that does not belie the fact that she is, actually, a freshman in college, living these experiences for the first time.  Her musician father taught her how to play guitar, and in high school she was in a band called Cheerleader before releasing some solo recordings that morphed into Palehound.  Their excellent Bent Nail EP came together this year, featuring the quintessential “Pet Carrot”, which seesaws from sing-songy folk to scuzzy 90’s grunge more reminiscent of Liz Phair than of Lorde.
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The Philly trio are a perfect picture of female solidarity, repping other girl bands from Philly in interviews and inking their bodies with matching arrow tattoos, as well as getting involved with Philly’s Ladyfest.  They sing about friendships and loss and the city around them with a raspy roar, holding back just enough on their three-song demo to hint at the spaces they’ll grow into.
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All Dogs

Coming out of Columbus, Ohio’s great lo-fi scene (which bands like Times New Viking and Psychedelic Horseshit helped build, and contemporaries Sex Tide and Connections will only continue), All Dogs take that same energy and clean up the grime just a bit to let Maryn Bartley’s hopelessly catchy vocal melodies shine.  There’s a youthful exuberance and earnestness that propels the material on their split cassette with Slouch and their self-titled 7″ released on Salinas Records.  The Crutchfield sisters have been big early supporters; Katie booked them as openers on an upcoming Waxahatchee tour after saying they “made her cry”.
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About an hour south in Cincinatti, Bridget Battle takes an endearing 60’s girl group intonation and spits it snottily into a microphone while her bandmates in TWEENS play messy, immediate punk rock.  Their CMJ performances earned them rave reviews and helped them release a bit of the energy they’d pent up during the recording of their first full-length in DUMBO, set to see release sometime this spring.  Until then, they’ll be touring with fellow Ohioans the Deal sisters for The Breeders’ extended reunion shows.
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Heavy Bangs

“I don’t care what you think as long as I can’t hear it / I’ll be a fly some other place.  / I don’t care what you do / As long as you stay away from me / I can’t stand the way you do the things you do.”  So begins “All the Girls” from Heavy Bangs’ bandcamp demos.  It’s a departure from the quirky indie pop Cynthia Schemmer played as guitarist for Radiator Hospital, but it takes cues from the same attention to clever melody.  The best indication of what might come from her solo project are the artful and contemplative postcards she posts to her tumblr ( before sending them to to friends, apologetically explaining why Philly drew her back after time in New York, or recounting conversations she had with a therapist over the loss of illusions.  Like the two tracks she’s shared, these can feel sad but are intently self-aware, the attention to detail speaking volumes between the lines.
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Are those alive in a golden age ever able to really realize it?  Or can it only be understood by looking back?  With the passage of time we grow older and wiser and we’re better able to put things into context, but there are some moments that are simply meant to be lived.  If you’re not screaming at the top of your lungs to these records or dancing in the front row at one of these shows, you’re doing it wrong.


ROADTRIP: Moonface and My Bloody Valentine in Philly

Part mix-tape, part choose-your-own-adventure, AudioFemme leaves the confines of NYC to bring you long-form accounts of the crazy things we do for the love of live-music.  In this installment, Lindsey travels to Philly for Moonface and My Bloody Valentine, with plenty of pit-stops along the way. – Eds.

In February I lay on my couch with headphones on, slow tears streaming from the corners of my eyes and into my hair.  I was listening to m b v, the first record by Dublin shoegazers My Bloody Valentine to be released in over twenty years and I felt as though my blood was running backwards.  I’d discovered them long after their seminal Loveless had been released, unearthing the quintessential record as a high schooler at the dawn of digital downloading.  In college, I dated a guy who introduced me to their earlier releases, and I fell in love with those songs as hard as I fell for him.  They were a band that I considered mostly inactive, even as Kevin Shields involved himself in side projects here and there, even as Lost In Translation brought the band’s music to larger masses.  Even when they “reunited” for shows in far-off places like Indio and London and Niigata (places it seemed impossible to get to) I thought of My Bloody Valentine as a completed project from which new music would never really come.  And I’d pretty much given up hope of ever seeing them live.  But then out of nowhere came m b v, with its gliding, grinding guitar on “who sees you” which felt like an extension of Loveless, its punishing flanger on “wonder 2” sounding not just like the end of the record, but the end of the fucking world…

My pulse quickened not only to hear these new compositions, but also because I knew there’d be a tour behind them.  And I could already picture myself in the audience with more tears streaming down my face.

*     *     *

Months later when My Bloody Valentine tour dates were announced, I could already see that the NY dates at Hammerstein would be prohibitively expensive.  But they were playing Philly, too – at The Electric Factory – and ticket prices were literally half the cost of those here.  A good friend of mine who’d been begging me to come down all summer offered to host me for the weekend and the decision was made.  So last Friday, I stood shivering on 6th Avenue, waiting for a Bolt bus.

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My Bloody Valentine tickets
seeing these made my heart leap.

I felt almost melancholy; it had been a strange week.  I’d lost my wallet after getting wasted at my ex boyfriend’s birthday bash on Tuesday, gone home with him, and burst into tears mid-makeout.  It was no secret that I’d had flings with this Philly friend off and on for the last eight years of my life, and my ex didn’t really want me to go, sometimes saying it was only because he felt left out, other times admitting that he didn’t want things to be over between us.  Philly friend had come down with strep throat and though he claimed to no longer be contagious that pretty much ruled out any hook-ups anyway.  So my weekend of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll seemed doomed from the get-go.  But the thought of missing My Bloody Valentine filled me with a dread so excruciating that all I could do was shuffle onto that bus, find a seat, and watch the skyline fade behind me.

On the way down I listened to She’s Gone, the debut of supergroup Upset.  Vocalist Ali Koehler and guitarist Jenn Prince are contemporaries of what can be described most simply as the Vivian Girls scene (both played in the band at one time or another, as well as several of its satellite projects) but what blew my mind most was that Patty Schemel (as in, Patty Schemel of fucking HOLE) was drummer of the band.  My anxieties started to fade in a wash of bubblegum-snapping, toe-tapping pop punk.  The little details took me back to my youth, from the disaffected chuckle at the beginning of semi-snotty “About Me” through the brazen “I just want to take you under the covers” coo on “Game Over”.  All the songs stay short and sweet and two minutes at a time, my heart lightened.

And then “Let It Go” summed up my exact position in the universe at that moment:

i kissed the bottle when i coulda been kissin you / i know that i shouldn’t be missin you / so i’ll try / but how will i let this one go / i wish the subtle things i say to you / would read the way i want them to / but i know i should try and / just let this one go / you can call this an obsession or an indiscretion but i just dunno if / i can let this one go / you wanted romance well here it is / i just wanna love you from afar / and keep you just the way you are / safely distant from my heart / but close enough still / to keep that spark

…caught geographically and emotionally between two boys, neither really a viable option at this point.

I was so nostalgic for the days I’d spend driving around with my high-school punk rock partner-in-crime Patti that I actually sent her a facebook message though we haven’t spoken in two years.

There are so many albums coming out lately that I really wish I could listen to driving around Northeast Ohio with you. You have to check out Swearin’ and Upset and Perfect Pussy and Priests and Joanna Gruesome and Waxahatchee and Hunters and Tweens!!!! It’s a golden age of girl-fronted pop punk and a GREAT time to start up our band 73 Cents (or the Vanities as I wanted to call us). Hope you’re well!

No response yet.  I tweeted:

Then I actually put on that dog. and melted into wistful reverie until my phone warned me my battery was at 20%.  So not punk.

*     *     *

Philly friend fed me grilled cheeses and spicy tomato soup and meatloaf sandwiches and tater tots from his favorite bar as soon as I got in.  We dropped my things off at his house and I met his cats and his roommate and her pug who has a licking-things compulsion.  Spencer Krug was playing at Underground Arts that night under his solo moniker Moonface to support his new record Julia With Blue Jeans On and I insisted we go; I’d been lucky enough to see him at Littlefield in Brooklyn the spring prior when he’d debuted a lot of the material that wound up on the record and the set was just gorgeous.  In the bar earlier while I was shoving food in my face they were playing Wolf Parade’s flawless 2005 record Apologies to the Queen Mary so I was already primed for Krug’s crooning.

Underground Arts is a new venue in Philly with a lot of big plans. After Moonface they were hosting an Afrobeat dance party in the back room, which was actually larger than the one where Krug was set to play.  I glanced at a poster on the column we’d committed to lean against and noticed that Thee Oh Sees had played there at the end of October and if I’d known how great this venue was I would’ve come down for that, too.  Their beers on tap were legit, the sound was perfect, the floor plan pretty open (they’d set up chairs in clusters around the stage for the night’s performance that could easily be reconfigured or removed depending on the performer).

Saltland, a.k.a. musician Rebecca Foon, was already playing when we arrived.  Foon is best known for stints in Esmerine and A Silver Mt. Zion and her solo project, while hinging on her very skilled cello compositions, also features some loops, backing tracks, and powerful if occasional vocals.  She gave shout-outs to her mother’s charity organization, repped Montreal, thanked Krug and called his audiences “beautiful” and kicked her right leg like a marionette with a charley horse as she sawed her bow across the cello’s strings in more urgent passages.  The songs took turns as dramatic and expansive as the imagery inherent in Foon’s nom-de-plume would suggest.

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Krug and Foon have been friends for a while, coming from the same city and sharing a music scene, and they both display the trademark humility Canadians are stereotypically known for.  Krug’s long hair obscured his face anytime he leaned over to play piano, but he would conscientiously tuck it behind his ear when he turned to address the audience with anecdote or gratitude, casually flashing a million-watt smile.  He explained that he’d mainly planned to play through the material from his latest record before opening with album stunner “Love The House You’re In” .  Even from the get-go, his voice was emotive and intense, needing no build-up or practice to slip into its full-bodied range.  His piano playing was deliberate and complex and though he complained of some broken keys and out-of-tune-ness it sounded perfect with or without the supposed flaws.

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Spencer Krug Moonface live Philly Underground Arts
Spencer Krug, a.k.a. Moonface @ Underground Arts, Philly

True to his word, he stuck to material from Julia, moving through powerful renditions of the title track, singles “Barbarians” and “Everyone is Noah, Everyone Is The Ark”, as well as “Black Is Back In Style”, “First Violin” and “Your Chariot Awaits”.  There was one song with the line we both know that we’re both crazy that had really stuck with me from the show I caught in May and was particularly delighted to find on the record.  Krug introduced this song, “November 2011”, as his most straightforward love song.  “If you’re thinking of proposing to someone now would be the time” he laughed.  Someone in the back of the audience shouted “Marry ME!” but Krug politely declined before launching into the relatively bright, sweet melody.

It’s hard to know how personal to get here, how much to reveal.  I can tell you that the first time I heard that song I was standing next to my ex and we were in the midst of a doomed reconciliation, but he looked down at me and took my arm and held my hand and I’ll never not think of that moment when I hear the song.  I can also tell you that in 2005, a few months after I met Philly friend, I invited him to come visit me in Ohio and we had a time that very closely follows the narrative of the song.  I can tell you that when Krug was one verse in, a lady near the bar fell off of a table she was sitting on and it clattered and it broke some of the gravity of all those memories, just a little.  I don’t know how many details it’s appropriate to share, ever.

*    *    *


We went to a whiskey and go-go bar after the show that made me wish New York didn’t have weird cabaret laws.  I drank Willet on the rocks and an elderberry cider and I can’t remember any music we might have heard in the bar or otherwise discussed.  We went to another bar and got late night snacks (duck confit potato skins and pineapple habanero chicken wings) and he confessed he was kind of involved with another girl who sort of wanted to get serious and I confessed that I had no idea what was even going on with my love life and we laughed all the way to his place where I immediately fell asleep under an electric blanket trying to watch movie trailers on the Carnosaur DVD I’d found on his shelf earlier that day and had been making fun of him for owning since.

*     *     *

The next morning we drove to a Tex-Mex brunch place where I got a breakfast quesadilla filled with eggs and smokey pulled pork and something called a Cowboy Coffee which had Kahlúa and Bulleit in it.  They were playing a pretty decent punk mix which is so different from the Michael Bublé bullshit I’m used to hearing at brunch that I got really wound up when Thee Oh Sees came on.  We checked out a couple junk stores and I insisted on listening to the new Swearin’ record as we drove around because they’re from Philly and I’m an obsessed creep.

When I lived in the Midwest the place I listened to music most was in my car.  Now I’m on a bike constantly (at least before the winter winds turn me into a wimp) or taking public transportation from Point A to Point B either lacking headphones or with my only mechanism for playing mp3s threatening a swift death if I open Spotify.  So these days, it’s a bit weird to find myself in the front seat of a car cruising down highways and side streets and everything in between.  Swearin’s first single from Surfing Strange puts me right back in the driver’s seat, if not literally.

We picked up my friend’s roommate and headed to the Trenton Punk Rock Flea Market.  She has this wry sense of humor, not wholly unblemished by the bitterness that goes along with sticking close to the same music scene your whole life.  Having grown up in the Trenton area, it seemed like she knew everyone.  The flea was filled with hand-made jewelry and record crates almost too overwhelming to dig through and the softest thrifted tees in bins labeled 4 for 10$ and lots of horror-movie paraphernalia and vintagey goodness.  We drove back to Jersey with No Age blasting and the sun setting against Philly’s approaching skyline.  We refueled with food and beer flights at Johnny Brenda’s where Tim Kasher was playing later that night.  But we’d be at My Bloody Valentine, of course.

*     *     *

As showtime drew nearer I felt an excitement growing that I rarely feel about shows anymore.  Most of the time I’m attending shows to check a new band out, or sometimes just because it’s something to do instead of staying home.  Even with bigger bands whose catalogues I cherish I don’t feel jittery and I knew it was more than the Cowboy Coffee.  I really felt poised to have a moment with Kevin Shields & Co., to be cleansed by intense volume and lose myself in guitar haze.

We got to the venue after Dumb Numbers had played.  It took almost an hour for My Bloody Valentine to set up, a ring of monitors and amps poised to surround Shields like a sonic Stonehenge.  I’m normally pretty good about weaving my tiny self politely toward the front of a crowd  but the way Electric Factory was set up it bottlenecked between the impenetrable bar and the sound booth and a wall of the tallest people I’ve ever encountered had already posted up shoulder-to-shoulder between the two.  I thought the crowd might shift a little and open up but nothing moved so we decamped to a balcony.  The sightlines were great but it certainly wasn’t as excruciatingly loud as I’d wanted it to be, and the psychedelic light show couldn’t quite penetrate the darkness up there in the rafters in any retina-scorching way.  Still, I was pretty pumped for things to get started.

They opened with “Sometimes” before I even felt prepared for it and it oddly felt like they were just trying to get it out of the way.  As the show went on it felt more and more like the band didn’t even want to play with each other.  Like chewing pot roast in silence at an awkward family dinner after mom and dad have been fighting, the quartet plodded through “I Only Said” and “When You Sleep” before appropriately introducing their most recent material with “new you”.  By then, some worrisome sound issues were cropping up.  I’d expected the mix to be a little muddy, especially as they visited works from Isn’t Anything, Tremelo, and You Made Me Realise – that is, after all, part of the allure of My Bloody Valentine’s oeuvre.  But it wasn’t that the vocals were buried under fuzz – it was like the fuzz was flat.  It all felt sloppily executed; the layers of distortion feeling disparate instead of layering gracefully on top of one another.  Several times, Shields stopped songs a few bars in and restarted them.  It was unclear whether these technical difficulties were occurring due to fault of the venue, but even from so far away I could see Shields point an accusatory finger at the audio engineer present on stage.  Worried techs rushed out here and there in a desperate attempt to try to alleviate some of the problems but the whole thing seemed like a train wreck.

In the purest, most unsullied moments I felt a sort of dizziness, and though part of that was true exhilaration, I think it also happened because I had to hold my breath lest the magic dissolve in some tragic technical difficulty.  “To Here Knows When” went off without a hitch and exuded an incredible warmth, “wonder 2” was almost as assaulting as I’d wanted it to be but I couldn’t help feeling like it should have been bumped way up in the set instead of buried near the end.  The squall of closer “You Made Me Realise” almost approached bliss but the so-called “Holocaust” section felt like little more than an “Off-handed Anti-Semitic Remark” section.  Which, referring to the jam session you tack on the end of your set as one of the most tragic genocides in human history probably is.  And then Shields, who said little all night in terms of between-song banter except to apologize here and there for the technical difficulties, said what I could have sworn was “Fuck” but I guess could have been “Thanks” in heavy Brogue.  Either way, he stomped offstage like a petulant child, the lights came up, and there was no encore.

The roughly 80-minute set was about as long as it had been in other cities, other venues, and the list pretty much identical.  But I felt so jilted by the experience it was all I could do to not immediately buy tickets to the $70 Hammerstein shows I had been trying to avoid in the first place.  I was stunned and crushed and not in the way I had expected to be at all.  I didn’t want to believe that it had gone so badly, that what would likely be my only experience with a band so beloved would be utter rubbish.  And almost everyone tweeting about the show had only glowing remarks with almost no mention of the sound issues, which made me feel as if I was going crazy.  Other attendees were saying it was the best show they’d ever seen (do you even go to any shows ever actually?) and using pretentious phrases about “angelic drone” and all I could feel was total jealousy of their ability to suspend disbelief and make delusional snap judgments.  I wanted to love that show more than anything and instead it was one of the hugest let-downs in terms of concert-going that I’ve experienced  in my life.

*     *     *

I get that sometimes things aren’t the way you expect them to be.  That often, disappointment goes hand-in-hand with any expectation at all.  That you might imagine one scenario and have the reality end up completely opposite from the fantasy.

I spent the rest of my evening stress-eating cheesesteaks (from Pat’s – far superior to Geno’s in my opinion) and decompressing in front of a pinball machine.  In the morning over cream-cheese filled Pumpkin French Toast and Chicken N’ Waffles Benedict I apologized to Philly friend for being so emotionally detached and physically hands-off, citing weird feelings I was having about my ex in NYC and my resent lack of self-esteem as factors contributing to why I’d been less than present.  He shrugged and said he’d just assumed I was worried about catching Strep.  Then he asked me why I’d been feeling so bad about myself.  “I’m just tired and I feel old” I said, “and I haven’t been going to yoga.”

I am searching for a balance right now, but the ease I long for has been elusive.  Weighty memories and distorted renderings are fine when it comes to a live music experience but there’s been too much of both in my personal life lately and it’s really complicating my ability to make decisions about the future of my relationships.

Back on a Bolt bus and headed home, I listened through Static, the newest from Brooklyn-based dream-poppers Cults.  Vocalist Madeline Follin and guitarist Brian Oblivion had formed the band as couple but split up after a grueling tour in support of their critically acclaimed self-titled debut.  No one wanted to make a big deal about the break-up, worried that the focus would shift from the music to the personal lives of the duo behind it.

For what it’s worth, the record stands alone without that back-story; it’s a bit grittier and fuzzier than the last collection of songs we heard from the group but is still akin to that material in its updated 60’s girl-group pop vibe.  Follin and Oblivion are joined by members of the touring band they enlisted to help flesh out the material live, and that synergy and practice shows on Static.  While there aren’t as many standout singles on the record, the dark undertones that the band typically bury in sunny melody here have their moments in the forefront, allowing for greater depth.  Cults has grown up.

That being said, the fact that Static was written and recorded by former lovers lends another kind of weight to tracks more outwardly breezy.  Follin is known for her impish vocals but lyrically she displays a no-nonsense bravado.  She comes across as disappointed in the turn of events despite knowing that things are over and is determined to move on, castigating her former lover and her former self  on “Were Before” and then delivering healthy doses of inspiration in the soaring “Keep Your Head Up”.

Follin and Oblivion could have chosen to break up the band when their relationship ended, of course.  Instead, we have Static, because there was too much there to walk away entirely.  The force behind their creative collaboration was all the glue that was needed to pull everything back together, and it’s a permanent fixture in the group’s trajectory.  “Always and Forever” highlights and celebrates the remnants of that relationship and the form that it’s now taken on, with Follin unleashing her sky-high falsetto.

I suppose there are just feelings that endure no matter the circumstance, no matter the disappointment involved as time marches forward.  I’m not going to throw my copy of Loveless in the trash based on one lackluster live performance.  And even though I wish I possessed the strength to whip my personal life into shape, I’m more in a position to be bandied by unpredictable whims than I am to take control.  At the root of all it is true sentiment unraveling endlessly from my sensitive heart, drowning out everything else like so much noise.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]