I have a confession to make. Two of them, really. I know, most folks are already trying to find the loopholes in their proposed New Year’s resolutions right about now, but I like to start January with a clean slate.
The first thing I want to get off my chest is a project unfulfilled: For months now, I’ve wanted to launch a blog called That Bitch Can’t Sing. The premise would be to celebrate all the under-appreciated vocalists — mostly, but not exclusively, female — who represent the antithesis of the “American Idol”/Christina Aguilera look-how-many-notes-I-can-cram-into-one-syllable school of singing that is so popular today. I’ve been bonkers for musicians like this since I was sixteen years old, and first unearthed my parents copy of the 1973 edition of The Best of Marlene Dietrich; while other kids were fist-pumping to Night Ranger, I couldn’t tear myself away from “The Laziest Gal in Town.” I’m hopelessly enthralled by women who, despite limited vocal ranges, weave captivating performances by flirting with a song’s melody while giving the lyric utmost attention. Little-known chanteuses — or more correctly, diseuses — like Little Annie, Cristina, Nico, and Hermine, who marry no wave/post-punk bona fides to the droll sophistication required to play supper clubs if they so desire.
But I’ve never launched That Bitch Can’t Sing because the name is so perfect. Too perfect. Aside from living in the most politically correct city in America, I’ve been flamed enough times in my career by budding feminists over incidents of merely perceived misogyny to knowingly tempt fate. Yes, my dream blog would be a celebration of these women (and their rare male counterparts; why is it so few dudes try and concoct a record that sounds like Tricky transported back to the Weimar Republic?), but the minute you throw the word “bitch” into the equation you’re asking for trouble. — even if you’re gay, which I am. I meditated momentarily on using the name That Bitch Can Sing, but that seems misleading; it suggests that I’m rhapsodizing about exactly the type of aforementioned ululating chest-thumpers I tire of seeing rolled out on the major label assembly line. I’d rather have a perfect dream unrealized than a half-baked one fulfilled, so I just write about these “bitches” that I love wherever else I can and call it good.
My second admission is that I have a new favorite artist in this field, and I’ve been remiss in writing about her for far too long: Anika. If I’m going to be completely honest, I admit now that I should have included her self-titled 2010 Stones Throw debut album on my end-of-the-year Best Of list, but it came out in late December and I didn’t feel I’d had adequate time to become fully emotionally invested in the record (see also: Kanye West‘s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). Now that a few weeks have passed, I want to shout it from the rooftops: Anika kicks ass!
According to her official bio, Anika is a political journalist, which is about as close as I’ll probably ever get to seeing my dream of Ariana Huffington cutting a record come true. During her international travels, she befriended Geoff Barrow of Portishead fame, and the two of them bonded over their shared affinity for 60’s girl groups, punk, and dub. Barrow was seeking a new singer to collaborate with his band Beak> (which also features Billy Fuller and Matt Williams), and in short order, the quartet were holed up in a studio where they knocked out this miniature masterpiece in just twelve days. Less cinematic than Portishead, Anika reminds me a lot of Annie Anxiety Bandez‘s 1987 dub-cum-cabaret freakout Jackamo and the sporadic recordings of Vivien Goldman (who cut one killer 12-inch for 99 Records, “Launderette” b/w “Private Armies,” and has collaborated with Flying Lizards and Massive Attack). Bittersweet girl group ditties like Twinkle‘s immortal “death disc” “Terry” and Skeeter Davis‘ “End of the World” rub shoulders with oddities like Yoko Ono‘s “Yang Yang” and two versions of Bob Dylan‘s “Masters of War,” both of which can only be described as harrowing.
If you’ve been looking for something to put into rotation now that you’ve exhausted Grace Jones‘ genius comeback Hurricane, Anika is the answer to your prayers. Give a listen to her (in)version of the Kinks’ “I Go To Sleep” and hear for yourself; if you thought Peggy Lee and the Pretenders‘ versions had pretty much exhausted this winsome tune’s potential, think again. Or check out the video for “Yang Yang,” which has generated a firestorm of comments on YouTube.
Speaking of female vocalists of limited range and limitless expressive style: Tomorrow, December 29, is Marianne Faithfull‘s birthday. We’ll be observing the occasion with selections from all phases of her career (except her ill-advised pre-Broken English foray into country music) on my program. I hope you’ll tune and and celebrate with me!
DJ El Toro hosts the variety mix show on Wednesday nights from 9 PM to 1 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org. His weekly rant, Weird At My School, appears infrequently on the KEXP Blog. Please follow DJ El Toro (aka Kurt B. Reighley) on Twitter and/or Tumblr!