In one installment of Mitch Clem’s (unfortunately) now defunct web comic Nothing Nice to Say, protagonists Blake and Fletcher walk in on their sometimes friend/sometimes foil, Karen. Earlier in the series, she had formed a punk band with a group of other women. In this particular scene she sits at a table, lamenting and venting. Her exact words:
“God. My band just did an interview with some crappy zine. They kept asking for ‘the definitive view of women in punk,’ as if we could speak for every woman in the world.”
It’s a brief moment of honesty in a work known for lampooning the absurdity that is punk subculture. It truly must suck to be a female musician in a male-dominated genre. The expectation is to be some kind of mouthpiece, a human telephone funneling every woman’s voice into a single easily unpacked note. It’s annoying, and though I won’t pretend to know for sure, perhaps it’s one reason why female-lead bands might shy away from utilizing their craft to express feeling specific to women alone.
Traditionally, hard-core’s trademark untethered rage has nearly always been from a male perspective. This doesn’t devalue the genre by any stretch. The aggro-expressionism of Black Flag, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Rites of Spring, Dead Kennedys, and so on, are all valid reactions to the variable madness of human existence. However, so much testosterone leaves out a plethora of vantage points with their own vexations.
Odd as it may sound, this is what makes Sharptooth’s latest entry such a crowning achievement. Its message is loud and clear, and there is little, if anything, “universal” about it. It isn’t pandering to its audience. It is being unapologetically honest about topics which rock musicians, even punk ones, too often gloss over.
Clever Girl does exactly what hardcore is supposed to do. It takes all the bottled-up frustration society causes, and shakes the hell out of it, then pops the cap. The difference is it does it strictly in regards to the effect on women. There are tracks which deal with other social issues; such as, the harms caused by racism and homophobia. Yet even these seem focused through a feminine lens, and an angry one at that.
Despite this, it is important not to mislabel the release as “political” punk. The album doesn’t erroneously attempt to speak for all women (with maybe the exception of “Can I Get a Hell No”); the “I” voice is prevalent throughout the lyrics, settling the band’s thoughts as theirs and theirs only. Also, unlike bands such as Dead Kennedys, there are few, if any, references to actual politicians, laws, or legislations.
Instead, the band exhibits the way women, and to an extent minority groups, are treated by society at large. This is both a blessing and a curse for the album. On one hand, it rightfully decontextualizes outdated and dangerous hierarchies, placing the responsibility to reject them on individuals. On the other, had the songs taken more political “Kill the Poor” or “Holiday in Cambodia” routes, they could potentially have suggested a macro-solution for people’s cruelty towards one another, namely authority figures and media CEOs who perpetuate such ignorance and hate en-mass.
Over all, though the album is so damn good, so damn heavy, and vocalist Lauren Kashan’s guttural shrieks may be the most genuinely terrifying thing I’ve heard in a long time. Yet, she also has the ability to croon so soulfully it almost makes you weep, such as the emotive anthem “Give Em’ Hell Kid.” The instrumental composition is fresh as well. With nothing experimental, each song manages to sound different from each other, while avoiding many of the riffs and movements stereotypical to the genre.
The production is also excellent. Compared to a great many Baltimore indie-punk releases I’ve come across, and I’ve amassed quite a collection, the mix is clean. There is no unpleasant background distortion resulting from faux lo-fi recording gimmicks. This helps the sound tremendously, as listeners can pick up on the nuances of each guitar lick, cymbal crash, and rolling bass line.
Yes, there are times this album will make you uncomfortable, such as the ironically titled “Left 4 Dead,” which explicitly deals with the ugliest realities of sexual violence. But, the best art has always challenged us as individuals, as a society; to question, if not altogether rebel against our traditions and beliefs. Sharptooth does all this unapologetically, taking hardcore into brave and dangerous new territory while never letting up on the ragged from-the-heart maliciousness fans demand from the genre.
Honestly, there is so much to unpack and take away from this album; no single review can do it justice. You have to experience it for yourself.
Clever Girl drops February 11th.
Maryland residents should attend their album release show on February 18th at the following location:
8636 Loch Raven Blvd,
Baltimore, Maryland 21286