Let’s play a free association game. I’m going to say a musical genre, and you think of the first three bands that come to mind.
The genre is “rock.” Go!
I’m willing to bet that for a vast majority of readers that none of the three bands include a female front person. Whether your associations had a historical lens and involved The Beatles or Led Zeppelin, or your brain went to 80s bands like Van Halen or Guns’n’Roses, or you thought of modern rock mainstays like Pearl Jam or Foo Fighters, I’m willing to bet you didn’t name any lady rockers.
What is it about women in rock that requires us to label them as “women in rock” instead of just “rock,” as if the genre sans descriptor denotes a male-only version of the music?
Even when woman singers and female-fronted bands escape the “women in” tag, they tend to get grouped into some sub-category, like “acoustic rock” or or “art rock” or “singer/songwriter” – or, even just “pop.” Yet, even with less women in rock’n’roll than men, it’s not hard to name women in all of those categories, like Heart, The Pretenders, The Breeders, or PJ Harvey.
A large part of the allure of Aussie rocker Alex Lahey’s debut full-length record for me is that it’s unquestionably rock without needing any further description. Yes, there’s a retro tinge to the arrangements, but this is surging, modern guitar rock that’s not discernibly different in genre than Arctic Monkeys or Imagine Dragons or whatever it is that modern rock radio is playing these days.
(Seriously, what do they play? Yet more Foo Fighters, I guess. There is always new Foo Fighters to play.)
I was introduced to Lahey via her cover of “Torn” for Triple J radio. I loved her bright, plaintive vocal and how she slashed at power chords on her guitar. That was enough for me to bookmark her name and notice when her full-length debut I Love You Like a Brother dropped a few weeks ago.
It’s a terrific, charming rock record from front to back, full of Lahey’s a gently-self-deprecating charm and a bevy of textured, unique band arrangements to keep it from ever feeling too sameish. I’d say if you enjoy Best Coast or Dum Dum Girls, you would probably like it.
Of all the strong songs, “Let’s Call It A Day” is that one that captured my imagination the most on the first play, maybe because it so clearly illustrated to me the inclination to sub-genre-ize a rocker like Lahey just because she is a woman.
“Let’s Call It A Day” probably leaped out at me because of its 60s-sounding arrangement. I am a sucker for any kind of rock that sounds like an outgrowth of early-60s girl groups. The verses of this song have it in spades, with chiming keyboards on the quarter notes, a syrupy, reverb-drenched, descending vocal, and the heaviest hits on the four of each measure.
See, I did it already – I compared it to 60s girl groups. Do I do that when a dude-fronted band like Real Estate does it? Sometimes, because there’s something to the DNA of that drum beat, but not every time. I would have just said “retro” or “60s,” or compared it to pre-middle Beatles.
I’m sure I’m not the only one.
In reality, only a portion of the song adheres to that particular throwback sound. The wordplay, oo-ing chorus, and wave of guitars on the chorus both feel thoroughly modern, even if the sudden minor turn of the the final line feels a little retro. I especially love the repetitive, bobbing melody of the pre-choruses:
I kinda like you but I don’t like you
You like yourself too much
And I want to but I don’t want to
I pull away from your touch
I let this tune sink into my brain as I puttered around our kitchen, hitting repeat several times before I let it slip by. I found myself first assessing all of the little genre nods in the arrangement and subcategorizing the song in a number of different ways.
Then, on the third or fourth play, my spinning thoughts snapped together and I said to myself, “this is just a really good rock song.” Full stop. One of my favorites I’ve heard this year, really, regardless of the gender of its performer.
That’s how I feel about Alex Lahey in general. I think she’s a terrific new voice in rock who is drawing within the lines of the genre but doing it in a way that feels powerful and thrillingly energized. It reminds me a lot of The Pretenders, one of my favorite bands of all time. The Pretenders are also fronted by a guitar-playing woman and also frequently have a retro bent, but for decades they have music that’s been obvously “rock” without a need to further categorize it.
I really want to see Alex Lahey receive similar recognition for her rocking accomplishment without it being footnoted with the word “woman,” because I haven’t heard any man in rock turn in a song or an LP quite this simply compelling so far in 2017.