The common factor about Japanese Breakfast, Sleater-Kinney and Liz Phair, is, of course, the fact that they are all fronted by women singers—but they have all just released new albums as well, creating a buzz among their fans. At 54, Phair is the oldest of the three, and her latest studio album, Soberish, which comes after a hiatus of 11 years, is a sort of comeback for the indie rock singer who first burst upon the scene in 1993 with her debut album, Exile In Guyville.
That 1993 album was believed to be inspired by the Rolling Stones’ 1972 album, Exile On Main Street. While the Stones’ album was celebrated as one of the best rock ‘n’ roll albums of its time, it also dealt with bleak themes such as the excesses of the rock ‘n’ roll life: addiction, sex and decadence. On Exile In Guyville, Phair took up all those subjects but looked at them from a woman’s perspective.
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Although it came out two decades after rock ‘n’ roll’s heady years, it’s an album that sounds and feels like a classic rock album, albeit with a post-feminist twist—songs with lyrics that mock sexism. For example, in Fuck And Run, a song written from the perspective of a woman who has woken up from a one-night stand, she sings: And what ever happened to a boyfriend/ The kind of guy who tries to win you over/ And what ever happened to a boyfriend/ The kind of guy who makes love cause he’s in it.
From there to her latest release, Soberish, Phair has come a very long way. Where Guyville was raw and brash, Soberish is understated, soft, and even has the slight patina of a pop rock album. Yet the themes of its songs—a breakup, loneliness, confessional reflections—reaffirm Phair’s commitment to edgy rock. The album delivers, with a sleekly produced, polished soundscape.
Sleater-Kinney, now a duo comprising Corin Tucker, 48, and Carrie Brownstein, 46, have been around nearly as long as Phair. They released their debut album, Sleater-Kinney, in 1995, and by the time their 10th album came out this month, they had undergone a line-up change (drummer Janet Weiss quit the band in 2019).
Unabashed punk rockers, Sleater-Kinney too took a long hiatus, from 2005-15. A staunchly feminist band, their early albums were characterised by a no-holds-barred punchiness and in-your-face swagger. They were counted among the pioneers of quintessential 1990s’ girl-punk revival, combining ferocious singing with tight melodies and sonic complexities. Check out an iconic early song from Call The Doctor (1996), their second album—it is titled I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone.
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The years that followed saw the release of albums which kept their rebelliously punk image intact, except for a brief interlude in 2019 when they released The Center Won’t Hold, produced by St Vincent (birth name Annie Clark), the art rock musician and producer. Sleater-Kinney’s diehard fans were dismayed by that synth-laden production, which somewhat took the edge off a band not known for compromise. It is believed that drummer Weiss quit the band before the album came out, ostensibly because of differences with the decision to go with St Vincent as the producer.
Sleater-Kinney are now back, as a duo, with Path Of Wellness. Fans should rejoice because although the new album signifies a mellowing of the once fiercely angry band, its soundscape still has the punk sensibility that made them famous. Path Of Wellness is quieter but it also shows that the duo still has it. And nothing sums it up better than the lyrics of one of the tracks, Complex Female Characters: You still got some good moves left in you/ Just do them right this time/ You still got some good looks left in you/ Just show up the way I like.
The third band on the list, Japanese Breakfast, is the brainchild of a much younger woman, Michelle Zauner, a Korean-American musician, director and author. Zauner, 32, makes pop music with an experimental tweak. Jubilee, her third album, follows a memoir she wrote about her difficult relationship with her late mother. Her memoir, Crying In H Mart, which made it to No.2 on The New York Times best-seller list this April, had an undertone of grief and regret. The album that has followed is, however, like a beautiful purgation.
Zauner’s music is known for its moodiness and extravagant use of guitars and synths. On Jubilee, that moodiness is replaced by a bright reawakening. The melodies are as sweet as her vocals. In the lovely Kokomo, IN, a song about yearning and memories, she sings: If ever you come back/ Wherever you find your way to/ And though it may not last/ Just know that I’ll be here longing.
Not unlike the musicians mentioned earlier, Zauner too has matured over the years. Her musical arrangements on Jubilee—she uses horns and strings to accompany the guitars and synths—build on her ability to experiment with pop music and her knack for one-liners while telling a story (in one of the songs, Posing In Bondage, she sings: When the world divides into two people/ Those who have felt pain and those who have yet to). Japanese Breakfast is modern pop at its best.
The Lounge List: Five tracks to bookend your week
1. Hey Lou by Liz Phair from Soberish
2. Complex Female Characters by Sleater-Kinney from Path Of Wellness
3. Favorite Neighbor by Sleater-Kinney from Path Of Wellness
4. Be Sweet by Japanese Breakfast from Jubilee
5. Savage Good Boy by Japanese Breakfast from Jubilee
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.