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The Latest Slant on Pop Culture A Riff Off

By Steve L. Burt

I had been planning to use this week's space for the new Pavement LP, since it's already on the tip of everyone's tongue here in the Rock Music Underground, and since I also happen to like it a lot. FM, however, has told me that I should not do that, because a member of Betty Please is already writing, or has already written, at length on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain for next week's magazine, and there's no reason for this here "underground music column" to duplicate his work before it even appears. Which I took as meaning that Pavement no longer counted as "underground," which not coincidentally, is what the entirety of their new album is about. As I'm sure you'll find out next week. Memo to Jake Kreilkamp: if you don't get all the mods and rockers reference and say what Buddy Holly song Pavement stole the vocal riff in "Silence Kit" from, your lose.

We now resume our regularly scheduled programming.

SLANT 6 Soda Pop Rip Off LP/CD (Dischord)

Slat 6 songs are strikingly simple: typically, there's one guitar hook, one notable response from the bass line, and a short song text whose point is a one-line chorus: then it's on to the next pop song, where they repeat the process. The paradox, if you want to call it that, is that their total simplicity of means ends up with such an emotional wallop: one tune and one line from this record can take over your whole day, if you're lucky. what remember of "Time Expired," for example, consists of the chorus--"Time expired, violation/It's a fucked-up situation"--and the throbbing five-chord riff that comes before and after it, a riff that's just as unsettled as the f'd-up situation singer Christina Billotte is describing, but that's clear enough for every note to count. "Don't You Ever?" which opens the record, has a similar economy of means, and is similarly stunning: in this case it's the vocal melody, the way the last two vowels get stretched out in "Don't you ever wanna know?" that sticks in my head for hours. In "Poison Arrows Shot at Heroes," it's the way the title line of the song falls by seven notes or so in less time than it normally takes to say, let alone sing, those syllables: having fallen so far, so fast the song immediately recovers its balance by landing on a stabilizing one-repeated-note bass-line. The songs can be, have to be, so simple because most of them have a central riff that takes over your auditory memory all by itself; the end result is an album that's got more hooks than Dave Letterman's Velcro suit.

Another thing: these songs the FAST. Slant 6 don't linger on a tune: they move on. It's easy to entirely miss a song or two (and to get surprised by the ones you missed when you listen to the album again). The short songs mesh well with the additional economy of instruments: here's a trio that sounds like a trio, that sounds like there's only one guitar going at once rather than trying as Big Star did to pick a famous example) to fill up the record with layers'n'layers of sound. The economy is refreshing, and makes it even easier to get swept away by the riffs, which are the point.

Another thing who do Slant 6 sound like? It's hard to say: the ordinary reference points for simple, fast, stripped-down, aggressive pop songs are old bands like the Buzzcocks, whom Slant 6 sound nothing like. Scrawl are the most obvious reference point--their early records were just as clear, economical, hummable and covertly sad as Soda Pop Rip, Off, though early Scrawl song were about half as fast. Other aural similarities are to Tallulah Gosh (the fast, sloppy, Oxford pop band that eventually became Heavenly) and to Boston's Salem 66, another riff-oriented all-female trio. Which raises the question of whether there's a separate tradition of all-female bands, stretching from the Raincoats on, whose sounds owe more to one another than they do to any male-fronted predecessors. Scrawl used to object strenuously to any such assertion when interviewers made it; its true that none of these bands sound much like the Raincoats, and it's also true that even talking about some kind of rock "ecriture feminine" risks shunting all the bands under discussion off into a kind of sidekick phenomenon, making them seem to be "out of the mainstream" of (male-led) rock bands (like, say, Pavement). For that reason I considered not mentioning the Scrawl similarity in this review at all, and even omitting the (interesting, to me) fact that Slant 6 is an all-female band.

In fact, though, if there is another, separate, tradition--and I'm not saying there is--then more than half of the good indie-pop bands functioning today are part of it: if Pavement (see Jake's piece next week) and the Loud Family are acutely conscious of being the end of something, it's an "end" that none of the best current bands led by women are part of, the "end" of something the Rolling Stones started, in which rock and roll was about, specifically, boys' experiences, boys who could or couldn't get no satisfaction. What brings the amazing record I'm ostensibly reviewing into the same ballpark as the mediocre new Bratmobile EP, the great Heavenly 10" that came out last year, and whatever, Barbara Manning does next is that none of those artists seem to be operating as the jaded end of anything: Slant 6 songs, in all their compactness, open out into a new world of energy and experience, sort of the way Buzzcocks song did, and the way only few current pop bands in which the men sing the songs still do. (Exceptions: Sleepyhead and Small Factory. That's about it.) It's possible to ignore all the gender stuff and just enjoy the record--that's what I'm doing, two out of three times I listen to it. But it's also possible to appreciate this as the start of a big enterprise (in which Scrawl and Tsunami, like it or not, are also engaged); the fact that the best song here, "Time Expired," appeared on a 7" compilation with three other all-female bands from different cities suggests to me that Slant 6 themselves my see it that way, and gives me permission to write the paragraph I've just finished.

The last band Christina Billotte played in was the slightly slower, more complicated Autoclave, whose other guitarist, Mary Timony, is now headed for deserved superstardom in her Boston-based band Helium. The various parts of Autoclave's sound--the instrumental overlaps, the soulfulness, the rapid riff-changing--are now split up among the bands its ex-members have formed: Helium songs are slow and cathartic Slant 6 song are speedy and compact, and Autoclave bassist Nikki Chapman's Rastro! is noisier than either other band. It's fair to say (and it's not a diss on Helium) that Christina Billotte's melodic sense must have been the dominant one in deciding what Autoclave tunes would sound like. The multi-layered Autoclave textures, the interplay produced by having 3 (or 4?) songwriters with different tastes, are just as missing from Slant 6 as they are from Helium and Rastro! But the riffs on Soda Pop Rip Off(especially in the second-to-last number, the sparkling "Blue Angel") could pass of Autoclave riffs, and have the same tightly-coiled double-reversal feel that Autoclave songs like "Dr. Seuss" and "Summer" used to have. I think Autoclave may be remembered as the Yardbirds, or the Sneakers, of the 90s indie-pop underground: a short-lived band whose ex-members all, or almost all, go on to do great and disparate thing. of which this first Slant 6 album my well be remembered as the catchiest of all.

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