MUSIQUE BOUTIQUE: Make More Noise!, The Neptunas, and L7

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.

The 1970s punk explosion in Britain rewrote the rulebook about who could become a musician. Suddenly, you didn’t have to aspire to be a virtuoso; you simply had to have the desire to create, and the confidence to get your voice out there.

And a fantastic new compilation from Cherry Red, Make More Noise! Women in Independent Music UK 1977-1987 takes a deep dive into the heady era of punk and its immediate aftermath, from a female perspective. Among the 90 acts featured, you’ll find some familiar names, but there are many more less well-known acts, particularly in the US, which makes this set particularly exciting to explore.

Where to start with this bounty? Well, the set opens with X-Ray Spex’s exhilarating “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” It’s an obvious choice for a collection like this, but it’s also a song you can’t hear too many times, a number “as era-defining and as crucial to punk as ‘God Save the Queen,’” as the liner notes put it. Lead singer Poly Styrene is in full battle cry from the off, bolstered by the accompanying off-kilter wailing sax of Lora Logic; its freewheeling exuberance is irresistible. Logic’s “Brute Force” is also featured on the set, a jumpy number that manages to be both edgy and whimsical.

And that’s just for starters. Girlschool stakes out hard rock territory with the propulsive “Take It All Away,” their debut single. Singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl, best known in the US as Shane McGowan’s foil on the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York,” turns up twice on Make More Noise; via Tracy Ullman’s sweet pop cover of MacColl’s “They Don’t Know,” and singing her own far more suggestive number, the rollicking “Turn My Motor On.”

In 1992, electronic outfit Opus III had an international hit with the moody “It’s a Fine Day.” But that track was based on the haunting acapella original version released by Jane (Jane Lancaster), in 1983, a sad rumination on lost opportunities. Then there’s the terrifying “The Boiler” by Rhoda Dakar accompanied by the Special AKA. It’s a devastating spoken word piece about rape, made all the more chilling by Dakar’s deadpan delivery throughout most of it. Not for the timid. Dakar was also a member of ska group the Bodysnatchers, whose buoyant “Ruder Than You” is also on the set.

Rip Rip & Panic (featuring a young Neneh Cherry) goes into attack mode in the jazzy “You’re My Kind of Climate.” Vi Subversa of the Poison Girls’ delightfully skewers gender roles in the herky-jerky “Old Tart’s Song.” You’ll also find the Pretenders, Cocteau Twins, Au Pairs, Sinead O’Connor, the Slits, Nico, Lene Lovich, Toyah, Devil’s Dykes, Strawberry Switchblade, and many more. The diversity of styles, both musically and lyrically (ranging from pungent social commentary to dreamy-eyed love songs), on Make More Noise! provides a comprehensive look at this fecund era in indie rock, as it moved from the underground to the mainstream.

The Neptunas, a lo-fi surf guitar trio, launched their career in Los Angeles in the mid-1990s, recording two albums before going on hiatus in 2000. They were gone, but not forgotten, as was proven in 2014 when a reunited Breeders asked if the group was available to open for them on a West Coast tour. Pamita, Leslita, and Laura Bethita Neptuna answered the call, and, following other successful live dates, eventually entered the studio to record their third album, Mermaid A Go Go (Altered State of Reverb Records).

The titles are just as much fun as the music. The snaky instrumentals “Billy The Kid’s Water Pistol,” “Undersea Grand Prix,” and “Nancy Drew’s Wetsuit” are perfect mood music for a twisted Spaghetti Western; one in which the cast wears pastels, perhaps. There’s a good choice of covers too; twangy guitar takes on Herb Alpert’s trumpet line in “The Lonely Bull,” the first hit for Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. And their deadpan delivery of the Kinks’ “Till the End of the Day” makes the tune cool as a cucumber.

The own songs are a hoot too: “Neptuna Car Wash” celebrates the joy of having a clean vehicle; “Hey Jimmy Freek” is a sweet story of unrequited love (though Pamita does seem like she’s a bit of a stalker); the title track refers to the band’s own personal love shack beneath the sea, with a cover charge of only five clams. “We don’t do the Watusi/but we’re doin’ the swim,” they promise. A fun, kitschy confection.

L7 rock hard and they rock loud. They spit out six albums during their initial lifespan (1985-2001), during which time they also founded the pro-choice advocacy group Rock For Choice, and had a great moment on the silver screen in John Waters’ satiric Serial Mom, gleefully thrashing their way through their song “Gas Chamber,” as the killer’s latest victim is set on fire right beside them on stage.

They split in 2001, but resurfaced in 2014; subsequent years have seen tours, a documentary (2016’s L7: Pretend We’re Dead), and a new album (2019’s Scatter the Rats). Their latest release is a reissue, a remastered edition of their sole album for Sub Pop, 1990’s Smell The Magic. It kicks off with the mighty roar of “Shove,” with Suzi Gardner giving the heave-ho to various unsavory types (bill collectors, creeps who pinch you, pesky bosses who want you to comb your hair). There’s a lot going on in L7’s lyrics. “Just Like Me” sends up rock stardom; “Packin’ a Rod” is a pointed depiction of wannabe Dirty Harrys; the slow burning “American Society” sneers at consumerism.

My personal favorite is “Fast and Frightening,” a thunderous number about a charismatic neighborhood hellraiser, with Donita Sparks on lead vocals. Which is the better couplet? “Popping wheelies on her motorbike/Straight girls wish they were dykes” or “Throws M-80s off in the halls/Got so much clit she don’t need no balls”? The choice is yours. Also available on CD or as a download, the reissue marks the first time the album is being made available on vinyl.

Musique Boutique: The Pretenders, Ganser, and PJ Harvey

Welcome to Audiofemme’s new 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.

The latest album from the Pretenders comes with a title that’s a stark campaign slogan ripped from the headlines: Hate For Sale (BMG). It’s a terrifically high energy number that comes barreling out of the gate full throttle, all roaring guitars and pounding drums, with an occasional flourish of harmonica. The title track’s protagonist is the kind of arrogant, swaggering monstrosity who will never be called to account for the destruction he leaves in his wake, more’s the pity: “He won’t get hung or go to jail/He’s got a curly tongue and a curly tail.” It’s no small irony that a song about such a rapacious creature (there’s a vivid description of him dining on beef all “butchered and bled”) is so invigorating and enticing.

To some, the Pretenders might be considered an oldies act, best known for 20th century hits like “Brass in Pocket,” “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” and “I’ll Stand By You” (their last Top 20 hit in the US). All fine songs, but the band, helmed by vocalist/guitarist Chrissie Hynde from day one, is still going strong, with Hate For Sale their eleventh album. In contrast to 2016’s Alone, which saw Hynde working with studio musicians, on this album she’s reunited with her longtime touring band, which includes original Pretenders drummer Martin Chambers. That’s undoubtedly why the band packs such a punch; they’ve got a strong history together. And Hynde’s voice is as powerful and confident as ever.

This is an album populated with smooth, calculating characters like “Lightning Man,” dancing with demons to a lilting reggae/surf guitar beat. Then there’s the unsavory “Turf Accountant Daddy,” throwing his weight around until “The things you criticized/That’s what you’ve become.” “You Can’t Hurt a Fool” is the ballad, a dreamy number about a woman who’s decided that “ignorance is bliss” is the least stressful way to get through life. And as Hynde murmurs the title repeatedly, you have to concede that she might have a point.

But I prefer Hynde when she’s rocking down the street. “The Buzz” has that signature Pretenders mid-tempo beat, with Hynde comparing love to a drug you crave even as it leaves you unsatisfied. In “I Didn’t Know When to Stop,” painting becomes a metaphor for a love affair, drawing on Hynde’s own interest in applying paint to canvas (a limited-edition book of her paintings, Adding the Blue, was published in 2014). “Didn’t Want to Be This Lonely,” set to a brisk Bo Diddley-esque beat, explores the contradiction between being glad you’ve finally cut ties with an abusive loser, but are still somewhat regretful about doing so as well. Hate For Sale shows Chrissie Hynde’s still a force to be reckoned with, and the only real complaint I have about the album is that at 30 minutes it’s just too short.

Also out this month:

Ganser’s latest album, Just Look at That Sky (Felte Records), has the bracing, dissonant energy of post-punk/new wave/no wave. The Chicago-based band (lead vocals shared by bassist Alicia Gaines and keyboardist Nadia Garofalo; guitarist Charlie Landsman and drummer Brian Cundiff round out the group) strips songs back to the bare essence: scratchy guitars; drums exploding like firecrackers; the bass turned up in the mix, adding to the propulsion; and fraught, edgy lyrics.

The mood is wry and sardonic, as in the opening track, “Lucky,” whose lyrics belie that optimistic title; “Thought you’d be okay? Well, drink up sonny!” Garofalo taunts with a sneer. “Emergency Equipment & Exits” is an all too perfect song title for the pandemic era, and has Gaines somberly intoning, “It’s a long way down. I don’t wanna be here,” like a prophecy of doom (though the video’s a bit more positive, showing Gaines leaving an eerily empty city to take respite in a green forest).

This is music that pokes and prods, maybe leaves you unsettled, but also gets you thinking. You can order the album (including a limited edition colored vinyl release) from the group’s Bandcamp. While you’re at it, check out this article written by Gaines about the experience of touring the US as Black biracial woman.

PJ Harvey’s solo career was launched in 1991 with the extraordinary single “Dress,” a rumbling, roiling number that made the act of putting on this simple piece of clothing sound positively ominous. The album Dry followed the next year, and proved to be equally striking. Harvey heads up a taut trio of guitar, bass, drums, creating a stark, churning backdrop for her brooding, bluesy songs. There’s a strong undercurrent of sensuality, coolly stating, “Fig fruit flower myself inside out for you” in “Happy and Bleeding,” while “Sheela-Na-Gig” celebrates the “child-bearing hips” and “red ruby lips” of the ancient sculpted female figures found in Europe and Great Britain. Now, Dry (Too Pure/Beggars Archive) is the first in a series of reissues of Harvey’s back catalog on vinyl. As a bonus, Dry — Demos (Ume/Island) is also being reissued. The album only saw limited release in 1992 as an accompaniment to Dry, and this is the first it’ll be available as a standalone release, on vinyl and CD. If you’re a fan of Dry, it’s well worth investigating Demos, which has spare, intimate renditions of every track on Dry, giving you an inside look into the album’s creation.