Big Songs, Big Hype (Oh Yeah, They're Women)

May 4, 2013
Originally published on May 16, 2013 10:19 am

In my line of work you hear about new bands every day. Maybe there's a cool new electronic duo coming out of Silverlake in L.A., or a lo-fi trio reinventing Motown from an illegal loft in Bushwick or an amazing heir to the Amy Winehouse throne emerging from a seaside town in England. All day, every day, the buzz is sounding. Recently, The Guardian featured a compellingly gloomy Mancunian quartet called PINS as its New Band of the Day; a publicist I trust insisted I go hear this London-based group called Savages; several good rock friends were independently obsessed with a Glaswegian synth-pop trio called Chvrches. It was only when I spent an hour in front of the TV one night watching Rectify and casually Googling these new artists that I realized: Wait, all three of these groups are led by women.

For as long as rock 'n' roll has been around, women have been in the mix, as songwriters, performers and muses. But even in the '90s, which saw the rise of Riot Grrrl culture and the mainstream prominence of powerhouse female rockers like Courtney Love and Gwen Stefani and PJ Harvey, the first thing generally mentioned about any band fronted by or entirely comprising women was that it was fronted by or entirely comprised women. Not so much this time. In fact, little effort is being made to paint these groups — who are all from the U.K. and formed within the past year and a half — as part of a cohesive scene, which is good since they're all from different cities and sound nothing alike.

My favorite photo of PINS, which released its LuvU4Lyf EP in the fall, shows the band members striding through a quaint small town street decked out in full-on CBGB-era rocker thrifted threads and holding hands. They look like a gang of secretly sentimental thugs — and that's exactly how they sound, too, like a motorcycle gang whose members spend their days defending their gritty turf then going home and dancing in their underwear to The Beach Boys. That's a party you could invite Chvrches to. The Glasgow-based group is fronted by the elfin Lauren Mayberry, a former law and journalism student, who connected with her synth-playing band mates, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty, via the city's intimate music scene. Their online breakthrough came when the blog for Neon Gold — a label known for earmarking some of the best dance rock bands of the recent era, including Gotye, Ellie Goulding and Passion Pitposted the shimmering, confident "Lies." The Recover EP capitalized on that momentum and now we're awaiting the band's debut full-length.

It's a testament to the potency of Savages that they stand out so starkly when compared with these other promising bands. To borrow a kind of sleazy term used by scouts in the music industry, Savages are very "fully formed," which is to say they have a clearly defined look (tailored androgyny), sound (ferocious post-punk) and philosophy about the world (it's damaged and in need of a violent rescuing). The combined effect is that they feel inevitable. When you first hear a new band there's a sense of you, the listener, trying them on. Do I like this? From Note 1, Savages seem to have answered this question on the listener's behalf. Their debut, Silence Yourself, is out May 7 on Matador Records.

The collective rise of PINS, Chvrches and Savages does not indicate a sudden lack of sexism in rock 'n' roll. And I'm not suggesting that the gender demographics aren't interesting. That image of PINS is powerful in part because it features four rocker women in a version of a pose typically struck by four rocker men. When I saw Savages perform at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, the entire band was wearing all black except for the blue scrunchie in drummer Fay Milton's hair and the bright red Dorothy pumps on singer Jehnny Beth's feet. All my guy friends have goofy crushes on Chvrches' Mayberry. The fact that these artists are women, in other words, is not beside the point, it's just not the only point being made. And that's a good sign.

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If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Kelly McEvers. And it's time now for music.


SAVAGES: (Singing) Oh, I woke up and I saw the face of a guy. I don't know who he was, he had no eyes.

MCEVERS: We first heard about this band during the South by Southwest music festival back in March. Their first record is coming out on Tuesday. They're called Savages. They're from England. All four members are women. They're part of a wave of all-female British groups that are kind of a big deal right now. But as much as you might want to call this some kind of girl group revolution, maybe that's not what it is. Music writer Lizzy Goodman joins us from our New York studios. Hey, Lizzy.


MCEVERS: So obviously, we're talking about these bands because they're either all women or they're led by women. But you say that's not necessarily why they're interesting.

GOODMAN: Yeah. I feel like in rock and roll, you know, a standard thing to hear is: Hey, there's this awesome new all-girl band from Brooklyn, or: Oh, my God, there's this amazing band coming out of Detroit right now. They have this super foxy chick front woman, you know? And that's not what we're hearing here.

The distinguishing factor is that you're talking about a bunch of different groups coming all from kind of the same general part of the world but who really have nothing in common with each other aside from the fact that there are women in all of these bands and yet that is not the first thing that we're hearing when we talk about them. And I think that sort of lack of story is a sign of a big story, if you will.

MCEVERS: Tell us about this band, Savages.

GOODMAN: Well, their name is very subtle. That's the first thing you notice about them. It's apt. They're one of the best-named bands I've seen in a while. They really are savage. They formed in London, and they all kind of have a sort of post-punk androgyny to their look that really matches their sound. You can really hear the kind of Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, Wire influence - these bands from the U.K. in the late '70s who had a ferocity that I think Savages is really picking up on.


MCEVERS: Wow. I'm totally in college. That is definitely Siouxsie and the Banshees. I'm like at a really bad party with watery beer.

GOODMAN: Sounds fantastic.

MCEVERS: So that's from Savages' live EP. That one's called "I Am Here." So, Lizzy, I know the British newspaper The Guardian had a good description of this next band. They're the most Brooklyn band ever to come from Manchester. Tell us about PINS.

GOODMAN: Yeah. I love that line. I think what they're referencing there is among the bands that have been coming out of Brooklyn lately are a kind of lo-fi, poppy, maybe '60s girl group influenced but as if they're all on heroin or something, like - kind of like a muted version of that sound.

And PINS really has that. They have a kind of mellow soulfulness to them, but it's also very dark. And that's the Manchester element, a kind of drony pop sound that is also very distinctive. You hear it in my favorite, so far, of theirs called "Eleventh Hour."


MCEVERS: It is so tempting to have this, like, they're-the-girl-version-of-X reaction. Like, oh, girl Joy Division. I mean, that's what I want to say when I hear this.

GOODMAN: Yeah. I have actually written that. And so you do find yourself going: Oh dear. Am I doing that cliched rock journalist thing of kind of wrapping it all up in a neat bow? But, I mean, I don't really have a problem with that. I think what's distinctive about what we're seeing with these groups is that we're treating them like we treat the boys, you know? That's what you do with boy bands. Oh, they sound sort of like this other thing I used to like.

But, you know, in the case of Savages or PINS, a Joy Division comparison is really apt with Savages. And, guess what, Joy Division was fronted by a dude. So, you know, it really does feel like what's distinctive about these bands that we're talking about is how they are united by their lack of sonic similarity, by their lack of even geographical similarity.

They're all from different places, and they all look very different, and they have different aesthetics. And that's what makes them interesting together.

MCEVERS: Again, that's the band PINS with a track called "Eleventh Hour." I'm speaking with music writer Lizzy Goodman about the wave of female-fronted bands coming out of the U.K. these days. Lizzy, so I guess what you're saying is they don't all sound punk.

GOODMAN: They don't. You know, the next band we're going to hear, Chvrches, who are from Glasgow, they have this kind of very sunny, jangly, electro-pop, synth-pop vibe. And it's very different from the moodiness that you're hearing with these other bands but also fronted by a woman, Lauren Mayberry, and two, kind of, techno musicians on her side. But there's this solid kind of steeliness that she has that I do think is related to the punk ethos. But the music is distinctly light.


CHVRCHES: (Singing) I'll give you one more chance to say we can change our old ways. You can take what you need and you know you don't need me.

GOODMAN: And when we say Chvrches, keep in mind that the spelling of the band's name is a little weird. It's C-H-V-R-C-H-E-S, and that's for exactly, you know, Google search engine result reasons. They don't want you to Google them and find cathedrals in the south of France. They want you to actually find their band.

MCEVERS: And, as we know for a long time, girls can do pop music. That's for sure.

GOODMAN: Yeah. That's no secret. We're not breaking any big news there. And, you know, we've known for a while that girls can do rock music too. What's different is almost really the response to women making these varied types of music. It's not so much that women haven't done it before. It's how we as a culture are reacting to it.

It's like, oh, there's a bunch of new cool bands coming out of the U.K. And you hear something on the radio or you hear something on a blog, and then you - it takes a Google to realize that, hey, wait a minute, this is an all-girl band. That's not the number one thing getting mentioned about these groups right now. And that's what distinguishes them.


CHVRCHES: (Singing) ...what you need and you don't need me. I'll give you one more chance...

MCEVERS: That was Chvrches with the track "Recover," and we've been talking with writer Lizzy Goodman. She's a columnist at MTV Hive and a regular contributor to Elle magazine and The New York Times magazine. Lizzy, thank you so much.

GOODMAN: Thank you.


CHVRCHES: (Singing) I'll come clean. Everywhere everyone knows it's me. And if I recover, will you be my cover, or it will be over, or we can just leave it here. So pick any number, choose any color, I've got the answer...

MCEVERS: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Kelly McEvers. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. We're back on the radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.