Sloppy Jane // Sure-Tuff
Recommended Track(s): Scratch ‘N’ Sniff
It’s sure tuff being a girl in 2015, this being the year of hollow-eyed capitalist piggies discovering feminism-as-marketing-device and, on a more niche level, a culturally irrelevant carpetbagger who shall remain nameless declaring herself arbiter of anything remotely girl-related and cool in LA; really one and the same thing when you think about it, which nobody does. It’s actually difficult to find quote-unquote local “girl” music that actually speaks to a real female experience and isn’t just womanhood-as-performance with lots of reverb and a Lisa Frank tattoo. So pray to Jane, our Lord and Master, for Sloppy Jane, an all-girl band who are doing it right by doing it wrong and who blow all pretenders out of the water with Sure-Tuff, the band’s zany new tape out on Lolipop Records (I can’t believe it, either.) With this release, Sloppy Jane front-woman Haley Dahl and her band have captured the zeitgeist of what I like to call true girl weirdness burbling beneath this whole girl gang canard by, you know, actually being weird outsiders rather than playing at it for cool points.
A kind of fun-house mirror amalgam of punk, garage, grunge and a tiny bit of surf, Sure-Tuff manages to be both deeply unsettling and compulsively catchy at the same time; not too shabby for a release that’s prevailing theme seems to be vomit. The strangeness of Sloppy Jane’s music is foregrounded by the minimalist production of Joel Jerome, always at his best when working with female musicians who trend odd (see the magic he works with another purveyor of the Female Strange, Globelamp.) On this release Sloppy Jane have a quieter, more restrained sound than one would expect from a band with a reputation for nudity and beer spitting during live performances, but the gentle touch throws Sure-Tuff’s peculiarity into high relief, the ever-present vibrato over the vocals and guitar creating an anxious feeling that never subsides. On the contrary, it only ramps up the course of the tape’s 6-tracks.
Opening track “Ballad of Jane” sports a bluesy feel with bassist Phoebe Bridgers bouncing on two notes and contributing sweet “Ohhh-whoaaa-whoaa” backing vocals to supplement Dahl’s raspy yips and yaps. It’s good, but it’s got nothing on “Aunt Rosie’s Garden”, a genuinely disturbing track that invites the listener on a sinister stroll through the titular garden, replete with a creepy carnival riff and some ghostly howling from Dahl. This is barely a song and its competing parts shouldn’t hold together but drummer Imogen Teasley-Vlautin, whose creative beats and subtle approach is Sloppy Jane’s secret weapon, keeps it rolling with whispery tom fills that transition the tune seamlessly from eerie ditty to deranged nursery rhyme.
But let’s talk about Dahl, an endlessly fascinating front-woman who writes all of Sloppy Jane’s music and as a vocalist possesses Kathleen Hanna’s ability to veer from coo to sneer to schoolyard taunt in a matter of seconds. This is shown off to great effect on “Scratch ‘N’ Sniff” (my fave), a song that might be about PMS or it might be about eating pussy but has an undeniably sexy, snaky groove that suits its subject matter perfectly. One moment Dahl is sweetly singing “Do you want to get married?” but before long she’s bellowing: “Buh-tween my legs/Buh-tween my legs baby/ SCRATCH & SNIFF.” And, yes, that’s an order. “King of Sludge Mountain” lives up to its title, a grimy piece of work that has Dahl declaring, “You are dirt, I am your king!”
As a singer, Dahl seems to be playing a character (as do many female front women in confrontational bands, probably out of necessity) but she does so without removing herself from the equation. There is no buffer between Dahl and her evocative lyrics which, peppered with bodily adjectives though they may be, never come across as metaphorical. Whatever she’s singing about is indelibly, disgustingly real. Take crunchy second track “Glitterspit”, a tune about bulimia smeared with the sparkly fingerprints of Courtney Love circa 1992 who, despite the tape’s dedication to Kim Fowley, is Sure-Tuff’s true Fairy Godmother. Though the song might be taken as another puke-as-symbol-for-something, when the chorus hits and Dahl starts keening about how “you don’t taste so sweet the second time,” I don’t think it’s an analogy. I really think she’s singing about and/or to regurgitated food.
The only time when Dahl seems adapt a persona is on final track, “They’re Coming to Take Me Away (Ha Ha)”. A cover of a well-known gag song recorded as a tribute to Fowley, Dahl plays it like a psycho ex-wife, slowly growing more and more unhinged as she catalogues the ills that have landed her in the loony bin. It’s easy to dismiss it as a joke until Dahl screeches, “I cooked your food/ I cleaned your house/ and this is how you pay me back/ for all my kind, unselfish loving deeds?!” And then you want to throw a plate at the nearest head. Okay, yes, it’s a little goofy (even the band seems to be giggling) and I’m not sure it needed to be included for Sure-Tuff to make a complete statement, but with with its balance of silliness, rage and real sense of social injustice, this parody-song-unwittingly-turned-feminist-anthem is a fitting and somewhat chilling end to one of the most assured, daringly original releases of the year.