In the rotation: January

The Rails
The Rails (Kami Thompson, James Walbourne)


What I’ve been listening to this month:

The Rails, Fair Warning (Island). I was a latecomer to this debut album, which was released last May but didn’t hit my radar until I saw the married British folk duo’s opening set for Chrissie Hynde in December. The Rails are — no overstatement — Brit-folk royalty: Kami Thompson is the youngest daughter of Richard and Linda Thompson. I guess that makes her husband, James Walbourne, the Kate Middleton commoner in this mix, but his solid journeyman bio includes stints in Son Volt, the Pernice Brothers and the Pretenders. At any rate, the Rails echo the timeless Richard and Linda dynamic — man, woman, existential gloom, romantic doom, a fondness for murder ballads  — without imitating it.

For one thing, they pay a lot of meticulous attention to close harmony, where Thompson’s parents’ never really did;  in the Rails’ hands, a song like the traditional Irish ballad “Bonnie Portmore” becomes a shimmering lost Everly Brothers tune. For another, Linda largely interpreted Richard’s lyrics, but Kami and James are a songwriting team. I’m not sure which one of them is responsible for the lyrics on the the title track of Fair Warning, on which Kami sings lead, but she had me at the song’s opening lines: “I’ll be OK soon, there’s a bottle in my hand.”  On stage, Kami is a figure of elegant self-containment, and that apartness comes through on the song’s depiction of loneliness, depression and self-destructiveness. Her gorgeous voice, low, dark and clear, is enough to rip your heart out

Enter Walbourne, singing lead on roiling songs about seafaring rowdies and breaking out of borstal, to brighten the mood. He’s a deft guitarist in the Richard Thompson flashing-fingers mode, and his voice has a little bit of Glenn Tilbrook lightness in it. Walbourne draws out Thompson’s playfulness on “Younger” (about the insurmountable two-year age difference between them) and the final track, “Habit,” which shimmies along like an old-time music hall soft-shoe, the happy couple in lovey-dovey harmony until the masochism of Kami’s sweetly crooned final verse brings you up short: “You got me in the habit of missing you/ Your evil-hearted ways draw me closer still/ Tie me up, teach me to be good …”  The Rails are full of surprises.

Charli XCX, SUCKER (Atlantic). The bratty punk-pop of “Break the Rules” and “London Queen” and the masturbation-positive message of “Body of My Own”(“I can do it better when I’m all alone”) are fun, but hardly original; those songs’ antecedents are ’80s Joan Jett and Cyndi Lauper. Charli XCX’s real strength is her ability to articulate the emotional anarchy of young womanhood without giving any ground to self-doubt or regret. The massive hit “I Love It,” which she wrote but gave to Icona Pop, is a one-girl riot set to music. While Charli might never top that song’s bonfire chorus (“I threw your shit into a bag and pushed it down the stairs/ I crashed my car into the bridge/ I don’t care, I love it!”), the title track of SUCKER comes awfully close.

This stomping, assertive flip-off of a pop track is an all-purpose comeback to rejection and false-face suck-uppery. Consider the poison arrow of sarcasm in her perfectly snarled reading of the lines, “Oh dear god, do you get me now, do you get me now, oh do you? Wow, you’re awesome.” That’s Johnny Rotten meets the Dowager Countess right there, and I pity the fool who underestimated this electro-pop prodigy enough to have inspired those lines.  Look, you can be 16, you can be 30, you can be an old lady like me, it doesn’t matter, there will always come a point in your life when someone will deeply wrong you, or mansplain to you, or damn your accomplishments with faint praise. At those moments, let Charli be your guide. Toss your snarly mane of hair back (even if it’s imaginary hair, go ahead and toss it), plant a platform wedge on their throat (metaphorically, or not) and shout, from the diaphragm, “Fuck you, sucker!”  A note of caution: On the physical CD of SUCKER, the title track is censored, so that all the “fucks” are bleeped out. But all the swear words on the other tracks are left in. What the fuck?

Sia, “Chandelier” and “Elastic Heart” videos. Ignore the misreading of the “Elastic Heart” video as pedophiliac by some Twitter idiots. These video interpretations are powerful, beautiful, haunting; they enhance the impact of the primal emotions and the wild, sometimes ugly behavior laid down in the lyrics. In the video for “Chandelier,” a wrenching confessional about Sia’s alcoholism, 12-year-old dancer Maddie Ziegler stands in for the singer in a platinum wig and a flesh-colored leotard. The girl literally bounces off the walls of a depressing, grungy apartment in choreography by Ryan Heffington that startlingly mixes tribal moves, ballet, disturbing facial tics (mouth stretched wide to mouth lyrics, fingers popping open one eyelid) and jerking arm and leg motions. Ziegler looks like a doll in the process of breaking apart. Does she represent Sia’s inner self under the influence? Is she a manifestation of her soul, struggling to save itself?  It’s open to interpretation.

In “Elastic Heart,” Ziegler returns, her leotard now covered in dirt, to engage in a savage cage fight/dance with an older male, played by a leotarded Shia LeBoeuf. There is nothing sexual in their contact. This is a difficult relationship, maybe father-daughter, maybe a battle between aspects of Sia’s self, in which neither side finds triumph or peace. It’s shattering to watch, but it’s hard to look away.

Last year, Sia performed “Chandelier” on Ellen with her back to the audience and Ziegler dancing front and center. For her performances of “Chandelier” and “Elastic Heart” on the January 17 Saturday Night Live, Sia’s face was covered by a black veil that jutted out like a visor from under her platinum bangs. On “Elastic Heart,” she stood sideways at the microphone, away from the audience, while Ziegler and an older female dancer, both in flesh-colored leotards and Sia wigs, danced-fought around her. The presence of the older female dancer made the warring-selves interpretation much clearer than it is in the LeBeouf video. “Chandelier” was a letdown, though; still veiled, Sia faced the audience, but with a male mime by her side doing a sad clown routine. Seriously, nobody needs to see a mime doing a sad clown routine.

Predictably, Sia’s veiled face launched a thousand Tweets, with complaints like “distraction,” “gimmick” and “Lady Gaga copycat” tossed into the ether. But I’m fine with Sia performing behind a veil or with her back turned while ceding the spotlight to her dancers; it’s a staging that’s almost Samuel Beckett-like in its deliberate confounding of viewers’ expectations about the relationship between performer and audience. By not commanding our attention on her face, Sia is giving us a rare thing in this age where style is everything — the freedom to really focus on her words and voice and to meditate on the painful, ambiguous visions the dancers conjure.

Franz Ferdinand, Live at the Roundhouse, London 2014 ( Why isn’t this cool and clever Glasgow quartet more appreciated as one of the finest bands working today? I saw their buoyant show when it hit Oakland last year and my mind was blown (also my eardrums, thanks guys) by the sheer number of perfect, thoughtfully-constructed, singable, danceable songs they’ve recorded in their 10-year+ career. I mean, I could listen to “Take Me Out” every day and not tire of its grandly dramatic intro and cunning riff, but there’s so much more. There’s “Michael,” and “Dark of the Matinee,” and “Walk Away,” and “Do You Want To,” and “Can’t Stop Feeling,” and “Bullet” and on and on and on, all of it built to last. Am I the only one who thinks that, in terms of songwriting mastery, they’re the Beatles of their day? Probably. But, yeah. I bought this official boot to confirm my memory that Franz Ferdinand was one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen (non-Springsteen division). It did not disappoint.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015