I first became aware of Hammerbox by way of a happy version of the ominous whisperings that start a fantasy movie – basically, along the lines of people “hearing tell” about something strange passing through a familiar world. There was nothing ominous about them, of course: the words was that the band’s lead singer, Carrie Akre, could sing – I mean, actually sing. If that sounds like an odd thing to say about any lead singer in a band, time and place had a lot to do with it. Also, just about anyone who heard the comment immediately understood its meaning.
A lead singer has to command a stage – that’s the barest prerequisite, no matter the genre – but Akre really did stand out because so much of what I listened to (and still listen to) accepts of lot of shortcuts around a clean, strong, powerful set of pipes. Carrying a tune, or expressing/manifesting an attitude or persona…just so does the trick often enough. Akre’s voice cleared the “clear, strong” bar without even one thread of her dress touching it (and I always remember her in dresses, and the way she danced while not singing; it worked), and, until this week, I rated their music highly enough to pick up their eponymous debut about five years ago, but I didn’t have to pay for it, either (seems relevant).
I don’t have a lot to say about Hammerbox after that. I liked them, even went to see shows they featured in mostly to see them, but the only song of theirs that I carried in my head from past to picking up Hammerbox again was “Texas Ain’t So Bad, Really.” Some other songs came back when I listened again – “Bred,” “Under the Moon” (which should have stuck, because, good tune; gratifying video, too, because it gives a taste of them live), and “Ask Why” – and I’m glad to kinda/sorta have them again – that is, Spotify doesn’t have Hammerbox’s debut album, but I can always stare at the mpegs in the folder on my desktop (that I can’t play), or find the songs on Youtube (as I did above). Then again, something about having a goddamn large music store in my back pocket (a smartphone and Spotify) and at least a galaxy’s worth of music to explore turns that tiny little barrier into the Great Wall of China…only one built to undercut effort instead repelling Mongols.
Spotify does have Hammerbox’s second album, Numb, but that one didn’t grab me the same way their debut album still does. Whoever made it carried “When 3 is 2” forward from Hammerbox, but Numb feels less varied overall, almost as if the band’s trying to fill an artistic space that’s at least half commercial (i.e., it sounds like branding). At any rate, Akre left after that album to form Goodness, and the only thing I’ve heard by them is the song they recorded for Schoolhouse Rocks Rocks! (cute song!). That would literally be all I had to say for this post…if I didn’t spend all of last week, when I supposed to focus on Hammerbox, thinking about The Gits.
To address something obvious up top, yes, something about stuffing two female-fronted bands into one volume feels like short-changing both of them, but I’m sticking with it for two reasons: one, neither band put out a ton of work, and neither band had a ton of range. The second reason is half-confessional: my brain just lumped them together – because, two female singers - and I think that’s the way more than a few male brains work. I’m not sure that most people’s brains don’t work that way, to be honest, but that’s a massive, freighted subject for another day. Moreover, pairing Hammerbox with The Gits (or pitting them against one another?) goes some distance to defusing that stupid, conceivably chauvinistic shortcut. And that notion turns on one strong opinion:
Hammerbox was good, and Akre really can sing (seriously, that’s opera-diva level in my universe), but The Gits were goddamn awesome.
Just like with Hammerbox, one of The Gits songs followed me through life – “Second Skin,” which, for me, is just a holy shit song, almost required listening – but the one song, “Slaughter of Bruce,” is the one that always comes to me when I think of them performing. And it’s here where the defining difference between Hammerbox comes in: when I think of Hammerbox, what I remember is Akre, hiking up a long dress, so she could rocked her hips back and forth and toss around her short haircut, just sort of performing while they band played; with The Gits, I think of the guitarist, strumming and bouncing up and down with “Slaughter of Bruce’s” beat and smiling, just grinning like an idiot, because he was having so much goddamn fun up there. (UPDATE: In fairness, I've been watching videos of live performances as I dropped links into this post...this does not come through.)
That brings in Mia Zapata, lead singer of The Gits…and here’s where it gets tricky. Her death remains one of the saddest, most fucked-up things I’ve ever been even remotely near. I say this wanting to separate myself as far as possible from anyone who genuinely grieved after her death, anyone who knew Zapata at all (unlike me), but Seattle’s music community, and close watchers of it (like me), absolutely felt a loss. When you see a band at tiny venues, spaces where it takes nothing but walking to stand right in front of the stage, the relationship to the artist can’t help but feel more intimate; walking up to say “hi” and “good show” takes nothing more than deciding to do it. That doesn’t make these people your friends, or even acquaintances. Still, you feel like you know them on some level, even if you don’t.
In the memory referenced above, the guitarist, Joe Spleen, was smiling at Zapata. She felt like the beating heart of that band, its voice, its character, and its drive, utterly magnetic. For all that – and this is 1,000% projection - The Gits looked as if they operated very democratically. And I guess that’s the distinction I’m drawing. To be clear, I know no details about either band, so this is framing. Akre felt more like a performer with a back-up band - a good singer sat in front of a band doing something close to what everyone else was doing, only with a woman – while The Gits functioned like a group that found their perfect spokesman in Zapata.
Well, that’s enough with my loose theories and sexual politics; it’s time to talk about the music. If you just listen to Numb, Hammerbox comes off as a vaguely grunge-y act h better vocals. That sells their overall work short, and I really do encourage people to give a listen to the songs linked to above (third paragraph), because those are decent songs that skip neatly around a cookie-cutter. A couple songs off Numb worked for me – “Trip” and “Sleep” stand out – but Hammerbox’s biggest contribution to my particular point of view came with showing me a different kind of female performer. It wasn’t a totally new concept or anything – I knew singers like Blondie’s Debbie Harry, Pat Benatar, The Go-Gos (who I knew too little about to properly respect), and even Janis Joplin – but the broad popular species of female singer was the chanteuse (e.g. Whitney Houston) or…well, just Madonna. In that sense, Akre felt like the future and a throwback all at once, a chance to see something like some of the legends I’d missed.
Zapata was something else altogether. By the time I was hearing The Gits, I was also bouncing into X and L7 (a documentary I watched last night on Zapata's murder reminded me of 7-Year Bitch), and all that, together, broadened my conception to where I actually grasped that all the boundaries of what women could do in music were (and are) imaginary, or less politely, bullshit. Moreover, The Gits still stride proudly among my personal pantheon of live acts. They always looked thoroughly thrilled to be on stage, and with each other, and everything they played tended toward…high tempo. They play my personal favorite brand/tempo of punk – hence the love. It’s basic rock, only bare-knuckled and rippling with defiance. That last note obliges me to touch on the tragedy one last time, because that was such a big part of it. Zapata came off as more than tough; she actually projected a kind of power, and in a way that deepened the shock of her murder. The woman who sang those songs, and with so much power and charisma, just made what happened to her that much more unbelievable.
I can’t transition to happy stuff after that, so I won’t even try, but I want to close on The Gits’ music. In the years that passed since I’d heard them, they’d morphed into something of a “bar band” in my head, but, having listened to them over this past week, I think they play closer to straight-up punk. And that’s punk, not grunge. There, I’m thinking songs like (well, short list) “I’m Lou,” “Spear and Magic Helmet,” “Here’s to Your Fuck,” and the shoulda-been-a-classic “Drunks.”
There’s more where that came from – and, no, not all of it listens as fresh to me; as much as I like the punk sound, it gets stale, especially when the same band’s playing it – but I also hear enough musicality and/or musical knowledge in songs like “Second Skin,” “Another Shot of Whiskey,” “It All Dies Anyway,” “Still You Don’t Know What It's Like,” or their performance of “A Change Is Gonna Come” and “Graveyard Blues” to make me wonder what The Gits would have done next. Some of the hooks in their more obvious punk songs did enough to make you wonder. And, as noted above, and with some repetition, The Gits were just super fun – and that comes out in songs like “Italian Song” (remember loving this one live) and “Drinking Song,” as well as something like “Drunks.”
Hammerbox got seriously short-shrift in the playlist I created to accompany this post; they probably got less respect in this post than they deserved, but I really do feel like they broadened my understanding of not just music, but the world (even if a lot of the super-structure only arrived with this week’s meditations). The Gits, though, always held a very real place in music as I experienced it. By way of some kind of accidental bonus, there’s a live performance of a song called “Social Love I” on their third(?) album, Enter the Conquering Chicken (and, jay-sus, am I just now getting to this? Their other albums were Kings and Queens and – my personal favorite, as in find it if you can – Frenching the Bully; great, great punk album). At the end of the song, Zapata lists the bands that were to close out that night at Portland’s X-Ray Café (a place I never made it to; true story). Gas Huffer, Christ on a Crutch, and Big Red House…and, with that, I’ll do something rare: drift off into nostalgia. Sometimes, that’s the only way you can have something…