Forced to choose my favorite American rock guitarist of the last dozen years, Iâ€™d need two seconds to answer: Carrie Brownstein. If you want a showoff guitarist who plays arpeggios with her teeth while wearing a bucket on her head, sheâ€™s not going to be your axeperson of choice. And sure, I have moods that demand the range of Nels Cline, the subtlety of Ry Cooder, or the visceral rush of Bob Mould. But riff for riff, Iâ€™ll take Carrie for her grasp of what the guitar can say within a song, and for almost singlehandedly restoring the legacy of the late, great Ricky Wilson of the B52s. Almost two years after the breakup of Brownsteinâ€™s signature band, Sleater-Kinney, I still miss their combination of raw power, depth of purpose, human compassion, and sheer rock and roll fun. Sleater-Kinney also saved my love life, but thatâ€™s the subject for another post.
Carrie hasn’t been resting on her laurels. ThunderAnt, her new duo with SNL’s Fred Armisen, has released what is, scientifically speaking, the perfect pop song (clip below). Slate featured her test-drive of the Rock Band video game. She coaches and promotes a rock camp for girls. Best of all, her Monitor Mix column for NPRâ€™s website has, in just over half a year, become one of my favorite sources of music writing; her written work is passionate, personal, and refreshingly free of hipster posturing. In recent posts, Carrie delivers a great road trip playlist (Wipers, Go Betweens, Music Go Music, Richard and Linda Thompson, Cal Tjader), captures the gift of the Replacementsâ€™ Paul Westerberg (â€œhis songs have an adult acuity sung in an adolescent idiomâ€), admits her weakness for reality television (â€œI suppose that Iâ€™d rather get that artifice-parading-as-truth from The Bachelor instead of my governmentâ€), and explains why she enjoys, but canâ€™t bring herself to love Vampire Weekend (â€œif you take preppy yacht rock too far, you end up back at Jimmy Buffettâ€).
The posts in Monitor Mix are thoughtful and reflective, even when Carrie is giving simple shout-outs to recent favorites, such as Bon Iver and Blitzen Trapper. One great recent piece uses the strange worlds of underground Christian/ alt-rock pioneer Larry Norman and Colorado hardcore obscurities Bum Kon to segue into the fertile subject of bands that fall under the radar screen. And instead of just sneering at the reviewer recently caught rating a Black Crowes album heâ€™d never heard, Brownstein uses it as a springboard for some hilarious fictional music reviews. Hereâ€™s Brownstein on the Shinsâ€™ nonexistent opus Honey Poke Shimmy Lantern: â€œJames Mercer and crew can do no wrong. They’ve added the Decemberists, the Thermals, and Spoon to their lineup. Recorded inside a deer carcass, the sounds on Honey Poke are haunting and cervid. These songs will change your life back to the way it was before The Shins changed it the first time.â€
ThunderAnt, “Perfect Song”
After the click-through: Carrie on Saddam Hussein and Liz Phair.
A post discussing the impending re-release of Liz Phairâ€™s Exile in Guyville captures Brownsteinâ€™s writing at her best. She captures Exileâ€™s still-beguiling magic better than anything Iâ€™ve read: â€œThe first thing I noticed about Liz Phair was the voice. She wasn’t screaming, she wasn’t being cloying, she wasn’t an amazing singer, but there was something serious about the vocals, something deadly. Part of it was the flatness; the strange deadpan delivery, like someone is singing on their back, like they woke up one night and decided they’d had enough and so they made an album. But the songs weren’t victim anthems just like they weren’t merely come-ons; they spoke of the fine lines between power and powerlessness, autonomy and isolation, they depicted epiphanies and the subsequent letdowns. The album was a journey vacillating between interior and exterior landscapes, the lyrics evoking halcyon moments always on the verge of implosion, either by the author’s own hand or by someone they loved. And the album was drenched in desire, of wanting and of wanting out.â€
“Strange” and “deadpan” are also good descriptions of ThunderAnt’s low-fi sketch comedy. The skits have a loose, improvised feel that will seem familiar to fans of Chicago-style improvisation. Rather than relying on heavy dialogue or dramatic punch lines, Carrie and Fred start with an outrageous premise that has a ring of human truth and milk it for its awkward emotional nuance. You never know quite what to expect, whether it’s passive-aggressive employees of a feminist bookstore quietly arguing about which flyers to put up in the store, proprietors of Portland’s worst restaurant responding defensively to online criticism, or my personal favorite, Saddam Hussein reimagined as an aging indie rocker appearing on a Cable TV show.
The clips below include some favorites from ThunderAnt and Sleater-Kinney’s gonzo-heavy2005 swan song, The Woods. For news and updates on Carrie Brownstein and her former band mates, check the unofficial Sleater-Kinney news blog Tiny Suns infused with Sour. Another fan-run site has a gold mine of covers and obscurities.
ThunderAnt, â€œBoink!â€ (featuring Saddam Hussein)
ThunderAnt, â€œFeminist Bookstoreâ€
Sleater-Kinney, â€œModern Girlâ€