The bad news: During my research of Call the Doctor I encountered several reviews written by men that I found quite annoying and two in particular that I found absolutely infuriating.
The best news: I can blame my fury on my father! Suck it up, Dad!
The story begins long, long ago in the midst of the Nixon-Ford recession in a small flat bordering the Mission District and Noe Valley, where my parents were completing their tax returns at a small kitchen table they’d found at a yard sale. Due to the collapsing job market, my father had only managed to turn his MSW into a half-time job with the City while my mother had become an early gig worker, taking on several short-term language translation assignments. When my father totaled up their incomes, he was dismayed to find out that his wife made more money than he did—and even more dismayed that it bothered him.
Since my parents agreed to never keep secrets from one another, he shared his feelings with my mother. “Get over it,” she advised. “But how do I do that?” “I’m sure you’ll figure something out.” Her response may seem flippant, but she felt strongly that she was not in a position to cure him of his sexism. He had a problem with all women; working things out with just one woman wouldn’t address the underlying issues.
He read some feminist literature but nothing that really pierced his heart and soul. Sometime during this period, he heard about a course in Women’s Studies at San Francisco State, one of the very few courses on the topic available back then. Not wanting to go through the whole admissions process, he decided he would unofficially audit the class and hope that the professor wouldn’t notice.
He really didn’t need to worry. Except for a couple of sneers on the first day of class, the professor and his fellow students—all women—completely ignored him. At no point during the semester did anyone in the class speak to him, ask him a question or acknowledge his existence. As far as they were concerned, he was a non-person. Every week for sixteen weeks he caught a Muni bus to SF State, slipped into one of the chairs in the back of the class and sat there in virtual isolation. I asked Dad to summarize his experience for me in an e-mail:
“The atmosphere wasn’t just charged. It was like the aftermath of an earthquake and I was surrounded by crackling power lines. There were about thirty women in the room and their collective anger was off the charts. The professor ran the class as if it were group therapy, which was a good call on her part because those women needed to vent and no power on earth was going to stop them. There was very little in the way of formal teaching; either the professor or a student would raise an issue from one of the readings or bring up something that happened in the news and for the next hour it was barely controlled chaos. Everybody had an opinion and they expressed those opinions with force and rage. Most of their anger was directed at men, so yeah, it was very uncomfortable, but it was kind of like the penance I had to go through to get my head straight (once a Catholic, always a Catholic, I guess). Since as far as they were concerned I didn’t exist, all I could do is just shut up and listen. I finally came to understand the extent of the oppression women experience every day, how that oppression feels, the pain in being less than a person and how I had taken advantage of my entitlement as a man in dozens of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The stories they told were deeply personal, so it was impossible to lump them all together and demean their experience by putting it into a convenient category. But the thing I remember most is the anger. It wasn’t irrational anger but rightfully held anger. I had to work really hard to not get defensive or take their anger personally and really listen to their stories so I could face what I had done to fuel similar anger in the women in my life. Listening to those women was a cleansing experience like no other: a cleansing experience where you use Lava soap on the skin, under the skin and into the soul. Man, there was a lot of bullshit in there I had to clean out.”
Confirmation that my father’s enlightenment was permanent came later from my high school girlfriends, who would ask me, “How come your dad isn’t an asshole like all the other fathers?” Those other dads treated teenage girls like tempting jail bait or dumb shits who weren’t worth the time and trouble. My dad talked to them the way he always talked to me—like an adult. He engaged them in conversation, took their opinions seriously and never came close to expressing anything in the vein of “you’ll grow up someday and see things differently.” His experience had made him aware that women go through their whole lives having to deal with men who feel they have the god-given right to dismiss what women have to say, so he did what he could to make each of my girlfriends feel that they mattered.
Moving on to compare-and-contrast, allow me to share a couple of snippets from the criticism that pissed me off. The first comes from Jason Ankeny of AllMusic:
Sleater-Kinney’s masterful sophomore effort Call the Doctor fulfills all the promise of the group’s debut and more, forging taut melodicism and jaw-dropping sonic complexity out of barbed-wire emotional potency. The emergence of Carrie Brownstein as an equal shareholder in Corin Tucker’s vision is the key — her four contributions (particularly “Stay Where You Are” and “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone”) are stellar, while her harmonies complete Tucker’s equally superb lead turns by reading between the lines to verbalize the naked aggression at the core of the songs’ polemic power. Forget the riot grrrl implications inherent in the trio’s music — Call the Doctor is pure, undiluted punk, and it’s brilliant.
Translation: Pay no attention to their hopeless effort to dismantle the patriarchy or the ludicrous attempt to achieve true equality, because we all know it ain’t going to happen. Instead, enjoy the meaningless drivel I’ve written that offers no insight whatsoever but reflects my sacred entitlement as a man to come up with clever and empty phrases like “taut melodicism” and “jaw-dropping sonic complexity” and get paid for it!
The second comes from a retrospective review from Tom Breihand of Stereogum:
More important than all that, though, it’s the first album that really captured Sleater-Kinney’s full fury. If you were so inclined, you could hear the band’s entire career as the slow refinement of what Tucker did on Call The Doctor . . . hearing Call The Doctor for the first time, it was clear that Tucker was the force powering this whole enterprise, at least early on. Her second “damn you!” on the intro of the breakneck “Little Mouth” might still be the single most vital moment in the band’s entire career.
Translation: You can save yourself a lot of time and energy and learn everything you need to know about Sleater-Kinney by ignoring Carrie Brownstein and playing a two-second clip of Corin Tucker almost kinda sorta swearing. Play the clip for your friends and dazzle them with your supernatural insight! And don’t forget to give me credit for my ability to distill an entire body of work into two tiny words! Female fury! The ultimate in titillation!
There’s a word on the tip of my tongue, damn it . . . ah, there it is. . . blockheads. Both of these guys thought that because they identified female anger that they understood female anger. The truth is they felt so uncomfortable with female anger that they either had to redefine it (Ankeny) or turn it into a sound byte (Breihand). They can hide behind “critical detachment” all they want, but in doing so they trivialize the messages in the music, displaying that special arrogance of the entitled male that allows him to ignore anything and everything a woman has to say. I’ve yet to read a review of any Sleater-Kinney album written by a man where the writer pushes past that discomfort and engages in even the slightest bit of introspection concerning their role in propagating female oppression—and that really pisses me off.
Just my luck to wind up with an enlightened father who imbued me with unreasonably high standards for male behavior.
Dad, it’s all your fault! Damn you!
As both Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein were playing in other bands at the time, Sleater-Kinney’s eponymous debut album was more of a side project than a full-on artistic commitment. After those other bands decided to call it a day, Sleater-Kinney became the pair’s primary artistic outlet, making Call the Doctor their first “real” album. The drums on the album were handled by a talented Australian multi-instrumentalist by the name of Laura (sometimes Lora) Macfarlane, who also played guitar on one track and contributed a few vocals. While Macfarlane’s drumming on Call the Doctor was adequate, the truth was she needed more room to display her diverse talents and Sleater-Kinney needed a drummer with a broader repertoire of chops. Macfarlane would leave the band immediately after the recording and go on to lead the indie band ninetynine (no caps), giving Corin and Carrie the opportunity to bring the supremely talented Janet Weiss into the fold.
The band on Call the Doctor reflects the punk stylings of many a riot grrrl band, relying heavily on raw energy to get their message across. The sound is somewhat rougher than what you hear on Dig Me Out, but the sense of urgency and excitement generally compensates for the lack of polish. What separated Sleater-Kinney from the punks and other riot grrrl bands was the mind meld that developed between Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein that spawned their innovative approach to guitar and vocals:
Despite the no-frills approach to recording, the songwriting on Call the Doctor brought in characteristics that came to define our sound. On the title track, Corin and I each sang a melody on the chorus. She was louder than me, so her vocal was the lead by default, but we never really considered one a background part to the other. It was a conversation we were having: she had her perspective and I had mine. Or I was emphasizing her point, retelling it even as I was singing along with her. And our guitars did the same thing, augmenting and counteracting each other. We would get to the chorus, and intuitively you’d think this is the time for us to all sing together, that there should be a cohesion, but instead we would split apart. It was almost an anti-chorus. We weren’t trying to form a solidarity with anyone but ourselves. Could you sing along to Sleater-Kinney? Sometimes. But we’d just as likely shout over you. And good luck trying to sing along with Corin. Trust me, I know. It’s nearly impossible. As a listener you have to decide what to follow in the song, which vocal, which guitar.
This way of writing and of singing was something we tacitly understood. We never discussed it; we never mentioned countermelodies. We didn’t want to sing harmonies. Our songs weren’t pretty, nor was our style of singing. It sounded scarier to not sing together, rarely allowing the listener to settle into the music. Everything inside the songs was constantly on the verge of breaking apart—Corin’s voice, the narrative, the guitars, so few moments provided any respite at all. If we did sing together on the chorus, it was only after a strange, uncomfortable verse. Yet the result was forceful; it sounded like a tightly bound entity, fragments clinging to each other for dear life—if you pulled one thing apart, it wouldn’t even sound like a real song. It was a junkyard come to life.
Brownstein, Carrie. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (pp. 107-108). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Later in that chapter, Carrie described the experience of listening to the playback of the entire album for the first time as “it felt like anthems we’d written for ourselves.” Retrospective reviews of Call the Doctor tend to overrate the album (as retrospective reviews often do); like many a maiden effort, Call the Doctor is a mix of strong and weak material, just as one would expect from a band still in search of an identity. “Call the Doctor was not our best record, but it was the last one written before any sense of external identity or pressure,” wrote Carrie. That freedom from expectations allowed them to establish the fundamental components of what would become their signature sound, so in that sense, Call the Doctor has to be qualified as a successful effort.
“Call the Doctor,” with its non-standard structure of Verse Form A1-Verse Form B1-Verse Form A2-Verse Form B2-Chorus-Verse Form B3, is most anthemic in Verse Form A, where Corin addresses the systemic threats. The opening verse (A1) certainly draws distinct battle lines in the struggle against a patriarchy that considers women just another piece of property—lumps of clay suitable for mythological molding:
They want to socialize you
They want to purify you
They want to dignify and analyze and terrorize you
Corin delivers the first two lines over a dissonant grunge guitar duet in a tone of bitter sarcasm, playing off the traditional notions that women are expected to be sugar and spice and everything nice and “above reproach.” For the third line, Corin raises her voice and shifts her tone to impart the dangers inherent in dignifying women (putting them on a pedestal where they can do no harm and have no life), analyzing women (because men know best) and finally, terrorizing women (which may mean rape, domestic abuse or simply denying women the right to choose how to live their lives). The über-message is that women are creatures who need men to mold them into shape, changelings who can be transformed from virgins to whores on command. The use of the word “they” identifies the enemy as the collective weight of rules and restrictions summarized in the word “patriarchy,” and not “all men.” The written record shows that Corin and Carrie were not “man-haters,” but implacable foes of the patriarchy and the unreasonable roles assigned to both genders.
The first appearance of Verse Form B follows; these verses are marked by Corin and Carrie alternating lines (what Carrie referred to as an anti-chorus). The impact of this form is somewhat diminished on Call the Doctor by muddy production that makes it a challenge to make out what Carrie is saying. These B verses are one-sided conversations Corin has with another woman or with three separate women; one could view the progress depicted in the conversations as the growth trajectory of one woman or three women at different levels of development. The variations in each B verse are subtle but loaded with meaning:
- B1: “This is love and you can’t make it/in a formula or shake me/I’m your monster, I’m not like you/All your life is written for you.”
- B2: “This is love and you can’t make it/in a formula or break it/I’m your monster, I’m just like you/All my life is right before you.”
- B3: “This is love and you can’t break it/in a formula or make me/I’m no monster, I’m just like you/All my life is right before me.“
I can’t help but interpret those lines personally, based on my experience in trying to “feel out” women to learn whether or not they’re interested in woman-to-woman sex. B1 is absolutely hopeless; she thinks lesbian sex is sinful. Carrie’s response, “I’ll never show you what’s in here” is spot-on. B2 is a woman in denial about her attraction to other women. B3 is on the brink, giving me more confidence that sharing my tendencies won’t freak her out. I would go one step further and announce the discovery of a B4, a woman who is ready to rock but gets turned off when I tell her I’m bisexual.
I can’t begin to describe how happy I feel that I have a regular partner and never have to go through that shit again.
Moving on to Verse A-2, Corin steps out of character and assumes the role of “spokesperson of the patriarchy” in the first two lines, mocking the absurd notions that women are nothing more than baby factories and that to challenge that “truth” is an act of sacrilege.
Your life is good for one thing
You’re messing with what’s sacred
She then returns to the Cassandra role, warning that transforming women into simple beings with limited choices is, ironically, the ultimate act of sterilization:
They want to simplify your needs and likes
To sterilize you
This brings us to Verse B-2, which ends on Carrie’s sarcastic line, “Call the doctor, miracle—she can talk!” We then hear an interruption in the chord pattern over a drum roll that quickly flings the band into hyperspeed mode where Corin shouts “Call the doctor!” eight times. I interpret the line to mean, “Call the doctor—there’s something wrong with this broad—she can speak her own mind! Oh, the horror!” If you haven’t figured it out by now, I think “Call the Doctor” is an amazing song with exceptional musical and emotional build, and a great way to kick off the album.
“Hubcap” opens with ragged, dissonant guitar and an equally ragged vocal from Corin, as if she’s watching the clock as it creeps towards closing time in the camera shop where she worked. She tries to forestall the boredom by writing on the side, hiding the paper when her boss shows up in his suit and tie. “You’re my co-pilot, not my god pilot,” she says to herself while considering her boss, and though she would love to share his “calm belief” in his work, there’s no question she doesn’t belong there. One of the aspects of Call the Doctor I find appealing is that both Corin and Carrie were still working day jobs to support themselves while hoping the music thing would work out, and the experiences they describe in several of the songs on the album ring true for all of us who have to deal with the ennui of the daily grind.
“Little Mouth” is another such song, and it must have felt quite liberating for Corin to express the rage that burns hot when you’re working a shit job far below your capabilities:
Smile pretty take take the money
You know me well oh don’t you?
Smile pretty take take the money
You know how to sell?
The music captures both the expressed rage in the intense all-hands-on-board bash and the seething rage when they ease up a bit as Corin repeats the phrase “damaged goods.” Carrie wrote about the grim reality of retail in Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: “So much of working customer service is about self-erasure, subjugating and then selling yourself in order to sell the product, merging with the commodities until you feel like one. Like many young women, we felt like we were on display.” No wonder Corin’s vocal sounds like she’s millimeters away from her breaking point—but since the song ends with another “Damn you,” we can assume that at least at this point in time, that “Damn you” remained safely inside in her head because she needed the damn job.
Continuing the theme of “self-repression as a survival tactic,” Corin’s opening line in “Anonymous” is “She’s worried, she’s worried, she’s worried she said too much.” It’s pretty obvious that living on the edge has resulted in a full-fledged case of neurosis, as Corin alternates between first-person narrative and an out-of-body experience where she observes her public self with the harsh judgment of a woman confronting her doppelgänger:
Feel safe, inside, inside those well drawn line
Boyfriend, a car, a job, my white girl life
She swallowed a spider to catch, to catch that fly
But I don’t know why, why she swallowed that lie
The music is classic two-chord punk riot with the verses in C# and the chorus in Bbm (allowing for Sleater-Kinney’s drop-down tuning), moving from steady drive in the verses to let-it-the-fuck-out in the chorus. Corin is more than up to the tasks of keeping her voice a couple of notches below manic in the verses and crossing the line into temporary madness in the chorus. At this stage in her life, she has a deep desire for anonymity so she can be “Not enough for you to know/not enough for you to own.” She closes the song by admitting that at present, she hasn’t found a satisfactory solution to her dilemma: “These words are all I have/These words are who I am.” Having gone through a similar experience in my early twenties, I relate more to this song than any of the other songs on the album and find it strangely comforting—I don’t think anyone ever gets their shit together completely, but I know I’m not the ungrounded mess I was back then.
I love the rough guitar duet of “Stay Where You Are,” but find the repeated lyrics a bit dull and inadequate; the theme of identity struggle is addressed much more effectively in “Call the Doctor” and “Anonymous.” What follows is much more interesting, as “Good Things” is the least riot grrrl song of the lot and deals with one of the most common themes in rock: relationship failure. What makes this song stand out is that this particular failure likely involves a homosexual relationship, where the loss of a partner is intensified by the vulnerability you already put on the line when you entered a homosexual relationship in the first place. It may have been more true in the ’90s, but it’s still true today: most people who enter a homosexual relationship begin in the closet, and you wouldn’t do that if you didn’t feel especially vulnerable. I certainly felt more vulnerable in the States and had many unpleasant experiences there when my partner and I held hands or kissed in public; in Europe, it’s more common for women to hold hands and walk arm-in-arm, whatever their sexual orientation, so it’s a bit easier . . . but we still have to accept that there are limits when it comes to public displays of affection.
I have to use the qualifier “likely,” for Corin never identifies the gender of the lost partner and, like me, she is bisexual, so anything is possible. I just hear something in her voice that gives me that impression—something I’ve heard in other voices who have ended a relationship with a same-sex partner. The positive aspect of avoiding gender identification is it makes the song universal; everybody can relate to the soul-searching and self-doubt Corin sings with such poignancy:
Try to make it good again
Is it worth it?
Will it make me sick today?
It’s a dumb song
But I’ll write it anyway
It’s an old mistake
But we always make it — why do we?
The hardest part is things already said
Getting better, worse, I cannot tell
Why do good things never wanna stay?
Some things you lose, some things you give away
Though performed with electric guitar in the Sleater-Kinney tradition, “Good Things” is actually quite lovely on acoustic guitar with its pleasant E-C#m-Ab-C#m chord combination (an A major chord is introduced in the transition from verse to chorus to keep things interesting). I love this song so much that I actually took the time to submit a chord correction to Ultimate Guitar—tedious work, but I felt it was worth it.
The most popular song from the album is “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” and as is often the case, I’ve found the interpretations in various reviews to be slightly off. I doubt very much that Corin thought she had a shot at becoming the “queen of rock and roll” at the time the song was written—she probably just wanted to put that shopping mall job in the rearview mirror. While she obviously understood the sexual potential of rock star power, her motivations at this moment involved getting a babe to move away from her devotion to male rock stars and love her with the same intense passion she projected onto lifeless posters of Joey Ramone and Thurston Moore:
I wanna be your Thurston Moore
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Wrestle on the bedroom floor
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Always leave you wanting more
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Throw away those old records
Adding squeals in the chorus was an inspired choice—not only for the excitement they bring to the performance but also because they tell us that Sleater-Kinney had “passed the test”:
“I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” was a test for ourselves, to see what it felt like to give yourself the smallest amount of power, and to put that power on display, to be unafraid and unafraid of yourself. So in Sleater-Kinney, we sang a lot about a world that we wished we could access without the added explanation or justification. We sang about playing and performing, as if in singing about it, we could really live it, free of judgment or the feeling that we were interlopers.
Brownstein, Carrie. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (p. 110). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
That statement certainly reflects Carrie’s lyrical responses to Corin, indicating she’s moved beyond idol worship and now is starting to think “that could be me up there.”
I swear they’re looking right at me
Push to the front so I can see
It’s what I thought
It’s rock and roll
I love the contrast between the moody verses and the ecstatic chorus, and if there’s one song on Call the Doctor that proves Sleater-Kinney really didn’t need a bass player, it’s this one.
We head back to the mall where Corin is still brooding about her shit job in “Taking Me Home.” The aspect of retail reality that she explores here is pretty straightforward: like the merchandise on the shelves, the sales clerk “merges with the commodities” and finds herself on display for all the horny guys who assume that it’s okay to hit on the hired help. Corin plays out their mating fantasies to the nth degree, even to the point of imagining marriage:
A dozen red roses
A cute little house
A cheap little ring
The deal is cut, now
She emphatically rejects that alternative reality, in all-caps: NOT FOR SALE/NOT YOUR GIRL/NOT YOUR THING. The music on this one is a bit tiresome, though, weakening the message in the process.
The music is not the problem with “Taste Test,” where the forward drive of the chorus and the clearest double-lead vocals on the album make for some exciting moments. The lyrics, which apparently involve a shaky relationship between two very confused people, simply fail to register on the coherence monitor. The same is true for “My Stuff,” a dark, grungy tune best captured in the line: “Such an easy thought and now I had it but I lost it.”
Things get a whole lot better with the blatantly sexual (yay!) “I’m Not Waiting.” Songs celebrating the delights of lesbian sex were extremely rare in the mid-90s but Corin holds nothing back—her voice is drenched with the erotic tension of a bitch in heat, her words completely unapologetic and free of shame:
I’m not waiting
‘Till I grow up
To be a woman
To be a woman
Honey baby sweetness darling
I’m your little girl
Your words are sticky, stupid
Running down my legs
Laura Macfarlane’s drumming is excellent here, punctuating the simmering choruses with the primitive sound of tom-toms and going full-on nasty in the verses. The second verse finds Corin in a particularly naughty frame-of-mind as she commands her partner to fulfill a specific fantasy, her voice made edgier through the application of a lo-fi filter:
Go out on the lawn
Put your swimsuit on
Go out on the lawn
Put your swimsuit . . .
The next round of the chorus ends with Corin squeezing every last bit of passion out of the word WOOOOOOOO-MAN, cueing the band to remove all restraints and accelerate to an orgasmic climax. Passion spent, Corin gives us two rounds of “I’m not waiting/’Till I grow up,” affirming her deep and guilt-free satisfaction with the experience of loving another woman.
Call the Doctor closes with a mid-tempo tune from self-confessed hypochondriac Carrie Brownstein, “Heart Attack.” This confessional reveals Carrie’s hyper-awareness of mortality (a subject she would return to in “The Size of Our Love” on The Hot Rock) and her associated fears that “Something’s bound to give me a disease.” What’s important is how her high-strung nature interferes with her chances of connecting with other people:
Stress case undone preplanned no fun
I’m scared I’ve scared them all away
High strung let go loss of control
I’m scared I’ve scared them all away
Though technically it’s not a fit with the larger themes of Call the Doctor, the willingness to reveal one’s quirks and anxieties has a humanizing effect, ironically minimizing the distance between musician and listener—for we are all mortal and we are all at least a little bit weird.
In parting, I want to share one more review, this one from my bête noire, Robert Christgau, The Dean of American Rock Critics:
Like the blues, punk is a template that shapes young misfits’ sense of themselves, and like the blues it takes many forms. This is a new one, and it’s damn blueslike. Powered by riffs that seem unstoppable even though they’re not very fast, riding melodies whose irresistibility renders them barely less harsh, Corin Tucker’s enormous voice never struggles more inspirationally against the world outside than when it’s facing down the dilemmas of the interpersonal–dilemmas neither eased nor defined by her gender preferences, dilemmas as bound up with family as they are with sex. As partner/rival/Other Carrie Brownstein puts it in an eloquently tongue-tied moment: “It’s just my stuff.” Few if any have played rock’s tension-and-release game for such high stakes–revolution as existentialism, electric roar as acne remedy. They wanna be our Joey Ramone, who can resist that one? But squint at the booklet and you’ll see they also want to be our Thurston Moore. They want it both ways, every which way. And most of the time they get it.
Can anyone tell me what the fuck that man is talking about? Well, at least he was one of two critics (Greil Marcus was the other) who identified Sleater-Kinney as the best rock band in the world, so there’s that. I appreciate the compliment but loathe the use of the superlative—I’ll just say that Sleater-Kinney would indeed become a fabulous rock band and Call the Doctor was the blessed event where they laid the foundation for a truly remarkable journey.
If you were to take a stroll down our block at just the right time . . . could be day, could be night, could be any day of the week . . . you might hear the sound of a woman screaming from one of the smaller houses on the street.
No, we’re not having sex. We are neither screamers nor scratchers. We moan and talk dirty in three languages, and the music from one of my fuck playlists drowns all that out anyway.
If you were fortunate enough to bump into one of the locals before you rushed to the rescue of a damsel in distress, they would likely stop you and say something like, “Ce n’est rien. Arielle fait encore du bruit.”
Translation: “Don’t sweat it—it’s just Ari making noise.”
I’m not used to people calling me by my full first name, but my neighbors insist on it. When I lived in the States, I encouraged people to call me Ari because Americans had a hard time with Arielle. Either they went full American and pronounced it “aerial” or tried to show off their high school French and wound up almost choking themselves by trying to gutturalize both the “r” and the “ll” (only the “r” is guttural). After a while it got tedious trying to correct people and I resigned myself to the typically hard pronunciation of the “r” used in the western U. S. You can find the proper pronunciation here.
You may have noticed that my father calls me “Sunshine,” which has more to do with his lousy French than my sunny disposition and blonde locks. He wanted to name me “Catherine,” but because my mother always wins, he had to settle for second place. Given my personality and nasty habits, Arielle is certainly more fitting than Catherine, which means “innocent and pure.”
Arielle translates into “Lion of God,” and when I’m making noise on my guitar, that’s exactly how I feel.
I began making noise in my teens when I was seriously into punk, banging away with a low-end Strat, a Boss distortion pedal and a Pignose amp. I’m happy to report that I have upgraded my setup and now make a ruckus on a gen-u-ine American Strat while plugged into a remarkable device called an Apollo Twin X from Universal Audio, a recording interface that gives me access to several software plug-ins that emulate the sounds of an array of high-end amplifiers. My favorite is the Fuchs Overdrive Supreme 50, but I also use a Marshall Plexi Classic and three amps from Friedman (BE100, DS40 and Buxom Betty). Though I’m sure the Apollo is a wonderful recording interface, I’ve never used it as such. Instead, I just plug in my guitar, open iTunes, slip on my headphones and play along to a carefully-chosen set of songs that help me develop my rhythm guitar skills while getting my rocks off at the same time.
I have two distinct practice playlists: one for making noise and one for practicing vocals. The most noticeable difference between the two is that most of the songs on my making-noise playlist come from the music of my generation (18 out of 22 come from the ’90s and ’00s) while most of the songs on the sing-along playlist come from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. You might snarkily conclude, “Yeah, millennials are pretty good when it comes to making noise,” but I think the data hints at the declining importance of melody in popular music, as demonstrated by the ascendance of rap and hip-hop. As for the noise factor, there was a vast improvement in guitar-related technology in the ’90s, resulting in more effective and more diverse forms of guitar distortion.
Without further ado, I’ll take you through my current making-noise playlist and identify those moments where the excitement of rocking out becomes so overwhelming that I entertain the neighbors with a near-orgasmic scream. Links to YouTube have been provided if you’re in the mood.
Warm-Up Songs: These are generally simpler songs in manageable tempos that get my fingers moving around the fretboard. Comparatively screamless.
- “How Do You?” Radiohead: This two-minute number from Pablo Honey consists of five chords and a raucous fade involving A major variants—sort of like a warped version of “Feel a Whole Lot Better.” I always open my session with this one because I can bang away on A-chord alternatives without ever making a mistake. Anything goes!
- “Advert,” Blur: When you’re playing rhythm guitar you have to focus on the drummer so you can remain in sync, and it helps to have someone like Dave Rowntree who knows what the hell he’s doing. The song is a mix of two-note power chords and a couple of straight chords in the verse (on “You need a holiday”). That sounds pretty simple but actually requires a lot of discipline and patience because of several instances of extended repetition involving the A-G pattern. The longest pattern (in the instrumental segment) tricks you because a voice counts out sixteen measures but you actually have to repeat the pattern twenty-six times! As Paul Chambers discovered when Miles had him play the same bass part ad infinitum on “All Blues” from Kind of Blue, this is frigging hard. I try to get through it by repeating a quote from Ed O’Brien of Radiohead during each measure—“Rhythm is the king of limbs”—so I can remember why it’s important to keep things together. Instead of screaming when I hear Dave Rowntree give the snare hit cue that signals the end of the torture, I let out a big “whoosh” of heartfelt relief.
- “Ask the Angels,” Patti Smith Group: This is good practice because of the three key changes, but when the band settles on the F major of the fade and drives this baby home, I usually let out a scream . . . call it a practice scream.
- “Pills,” The New York Dolls: A solid rock ‘n’ roll classic to loosen up the fingers and get into the groove. I love it when I nail the rhythm and hear Johnny Thunders ripping through my headphones, but it’s more “satisfaction for a job well done” than a screaming moment.
Let It Rip Songs: It’s time to let the neighbors know that the Lion of God is on the prowl!
- “Listed MIA,” Rancid: “Fuck, yeah!” is how I opened my post on And Out Come the Wolves, and this high-speed punk romp with plenty of power chord action is one of nineteen reasons the album earned that honor. The scream comes in the last verse when the boys give it all they’ve got and throw in some handclaps to seal the deal—and I scream as if I’m taking the deepest plunge on the biggest, baddest roller coaster ever. Absolutely fucking relentless!
- “The Librarians Are Hiding Something,” $wingin Utter$: More Bay Area punk from a band I saw half a dozen times, this one has the virtue of an even faster tempo and hilarious lyrics. The scream arrives with the let-it-all-out finish when Greg McEntee absolutely destroys his cymbals.
- “Don’t Mess with Me,” Brody Dalle: The challenge here comes from the rapid B-C power chord slides; the orgasmic moments come every time Brody hits that long note on “I’ve got the feeling I can break” with plenty of Cobainesque sandpaper in her voice.
- “Clampdown,” The Clash: I’ve always wanted to emulate the sound of those propulsive power chords, and thanks to the Apollo I can now adjust my settings to sound just like Mick Jones! The real trial involves restraint—I tend to get too excited and play past the cuts instead of giving way to Topper Headon. You have to be an idiot to play over Topper Headon, and I qualify. Too many screams to count.
- “M. O. R.” Blur: This one involves a series of two-note power chord arpeggios followed by a let-it-rip chorus that serves as the scream trigger. Sometimes I’ll break off and try to emulate Graham Coxon’s screaming bends with little success.
- “Play You Out,” Mind Spiders: The Mind Spiders have two drummers, so I have plenty of cues to keep me on track as they alternate between all-out punk bash and a classic rock rhythm. Lots of screams on this one.
- “Things You Say,” Sleater-Kinney: I ignore both Carrie’s and Corin’s guitar parts and add a third rhythm guitar part of pure power chords, possible only because Janet Weiss is such a fabulous drummer. The varied syncopation serves as a refreshing stylistic change; the scream comes at the end of the song when Corin belts out the line, “It is brave to be alive!”
- “One More Hour,” Sleater-Kinney: This one is a lot of fun to play because of the three rhythmic variations and subtle downshifts. The scream moment arrives later in the song when they bring it down a notch for Corin’s agonizing lines, “Don’t say another word/About the other girl,” expressing lingering passion and rising anxiety echoed in the ascending chord pattern.
- “Richard III,” Supergrass: Frantic sliding up and down the fretboard sweetened by a dissonant six-half-step chord combination (A-Eb) makes for an excellent rhythm guitar workout and earns a scream every time they cut from A-Eb to C-Ab-G (what y’all know as the chorus). Perfect for the Buxom Betty amp emulator that features a range of nasty presets.
- “Cigarettes and Alcohol,” Oasis: Tony McCarroll wasn’t much of a drummer, but all he needed to do on this song is keep the beat and stay out of the way of the Gallagher Brothers. I like practicing this song because I have to spend a lot of time on the lower strings, thus strengthening my callouses.
- “Lyla,” Oasis: This is one of two songs that are duplicated on my vocal playlist. It’s a song dominated by rhythm guitar (Noel’s solo is brief and to the point) and because the full chords sound better on an acoustic, I switch over to my Ovation for this one. I absolutely love playing along with Zak Starkey, a vast improvement over McCarroll and Alan White.
- “Gimme Three Steps,” Lynyrd Skynyrd: Allen Collins was one of the best rhythm guitar players ever, and trying to duplicate his timing on this song is a master class on rhythm guitar. I scream whenever I nail it, which doesn’t happen all that often because I get too damned excited.
Stretch Songs: These songs all involve arpeggios, the musical form that gives me the most trouble on the guitar. As noted in my Albert King review, I do better without a pick, but the thumb simply doesn’t produce the necessary edge you need in rock . . . hence the need to keep practicing!
- “Portions for Foxes,” Rilo Kiley: Lots of arpeggios all over the fretboard make this a challenge for me. Fortunately, there are several power chord breaks to restore my flagging confidence.
- “Words and Guitar,” Sleater-Kinney: This one frustrates me to the nth degree because it shouldn’t be that difficult. The arpeggios involve a simple chord change from A-flat to C-minor but my arpeggio anxiety tends to get in the way. I only scream when I get it right.
- “Supersonic,” Oasis: I’ve worked my fingers to the bone trying to master this one. The opening arpeggio involves five strings in the form of an F#m11 chord and I nearly always fuck it up on the downstrokes. The arpeggio leading to the chorus is played on an unusually shaped C#7 that hurts like hell. If I ever get to meet Noel Gallagher I want to study the fingers on his left hand to confirm my theory that his callouses extend beyond his fingertips.
- “Everyone Thinks I’m a Raincloud (When I’m Not Looking),” Guided by Voices: This is one arpeggio I get right . . . most of the time. I think it’s easier because it includes some open strings. Love the multiple variants on the E chord, ensuring that I get a lot of fretboard exercise.
- “Bodysnatchers,” Radiohead: When I first attempted this song I was stunned to learn that it demands much more speed than my ears led me to believe, adding to the difficulty of working with the bottom strings at the upper reaches of the fretboard. As is common with Radiohead, the chord changes are brilliant—and more complex due to the heavy use of alternative voicings. Even with the difficulty, I love working with this song and am absolutely determined to nail it someday. My scream moment syncs perfectly with Thom Yorke’s rebel yell after a series of quick chord changes resolve to a thunderous climax on the G chord—and I beat the living shit out of that chord while screaming my lungs out.
Special Bonus Warmup Song!
- Girls and Boys, Blur: When I haven’t played in a while and need to limber my digits and harden my callouses pronto, this is my go-to song. “Huh. That’s not much of a guitar song, is it?” you opine. Well, no, it isn’t—but the chord pattern is made up of a series of standard chords that are usually the hardest on the fingers (G7, C7, F, Eb, F#, F) . . . and the song demands that you play those chords over and over and over and over and over and over . . . well, you get the picture. I used to use “You Can’t Do That” by The Beatles (G7, C7, D7/B7, Em, Am, Bm D), as an alternative, but I tended to get pissed off by Lennon’s sexist control hangup so often that I’d miss my spots. My new backup is “We Used to Know” by Jethro Tull (Em, B7, D, A, C, G, F#, B7), which also allows me to practice my dynamic control.
I want to make one more point before I disappear into the ether—a consumer warning of sorts. I can usually figure out the chords to most songs by myself using either guitar or piano, but sometimes I’ll consult the various chord repository websites if I get stuck. This is a 50/50 proposition at best, but sometimes the errors guide me to the solution. The most common error (and it happens A LOT) involves transcribing minor chords in place of 7th chords. The transcription of “Girls and Boys” on Ultimate-Guitar.com features this mistake . . . and the transcription is rated 4.8 out of 5 stars!
Hey! I think I’ll go rock out right now! Back next week with The Jam!