Whether it was the Numero Group's 2006 Ladies from the Canyon compilation, the Water reissues of Judee Sill and Anne Briggs, Vashti Bunyan's return, Devendra Banhart's heroine-worship of Karen Dalton, or Sheila Weller's Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation (Atria) the history of female singer-songwriters has received welcome revisions over the past few years. Lone wolves like Townes Van Zandt and domestic collaborations like John Lennon and Yoko Ono's are the exception to the rule: hallowed solitude and spiritual doubt belong to the women at their pianos and guitars. The brilliant innuendos and cavalier remonstrations of the Leonard Cohens and Paul Simons of the world are too arch to nick the lonely edge of invisibility. It's that old "show, don't tell" lesson: the men fulminate despair, masquerading transparency, while the women blur the singer and the song.
From the outskirts of the musical map there are persistent rumblings of a new solo sound. Some of my favorite albums of the year are by women who fling their voices across miles of echo, and push chords into thick drifts of dub drones and nursery rhyme traces. I'm thinking of Grouper's Dragging a Dead Deer up a Hill (Type), Valet's Naked Acid (Kranky), Avocet's Morning Singing in Afternoon (self-released), Christina Carter's Original Darkness (Kranky), Lau Nau's Nukkuu (Locust), and Inca Ore's Birthday of Bless You (Not Not Fun), though surely there are others. Add to this already-stellar group Pocahaunted, the Los Angeles duo whose full-length, Chains (Teenage Teardrops), is a mandala wheel of Stevie Nicks yowls and grungy repetition, and you've got a stacked playlist.
On the face of it, these women artists appear to contradict the basic tenet of singer-songwriterdom: make sure everyone can understand the words. But Sill, Dalton, and Mitchell all registered opacity. Their albums often seem as much about stealing away from the outside world as they are about letting the listener in. The records by Grouper, Valet, Avocet, Carter, and Inca Ore are too distended and punk-streaked to pass as folk, though they have that same sense of precarious balance as the earlier so-called ladies from the canyon. Diffuse in sound and space, their music is concentrated in effect. Grouper's recording is my favorite of the bunch for the slippery melancholy of Liz Harris' hunched acoustic strums. Her starry vocals conjure stillness and distance without sounding aloof. Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill ends with the stark, sad pop of an amplifier being unplugged, an apt reminder of the limits of intimacy. And yet, how else to describe the experience of these albums? Following their designs, we find ourselves in a mental state as free as it is familiar.
(in alphabetical order)
•Michael Hurley, Little Wings, Avocet, Lucky Dragons, and a sunset for all time at Angel Island, July 1213
•Beach House, Devotion (Carpark)
•Sam Cooke, "A Change Is Gonna Come" (RCA Victor, 1964)
•Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8 (Columbia)
•Flying Lotus, Los Angeles (Warp)
•Group Inerane, Guitars from Agadez (Sublime Frequencies)
•Grouper, Dragging a Dead Deer up a Hill (Type)
•My Bloody Valentine at Concourse, Sept. 30
•Rodriguez, Cold Fact (Light in the Attic)
•Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell (Matt Wolf, US)
>>MORE YEAR IN MUSIC 2008