Dead Sara Is Weathering the Storm

Blazing hard rock might signal a sea change

A few weeks ago, I was perusing the Billboard Rock Songs chart, which for quite a while now has been the running diary of a genre in crisis. The number of stations specializing in rock of the non-classic variety is shrinking as more and more frequencies turn away from music (à la the former WRXP's flip to news-and-chatter last year) or toward outright nostalgia-flogging. As a result, the chart has become fragmented and all over the guitar-driven map.

This subgenre pileup is partially derived from the way the chart takes its cues from three different strains of rock stations. The hoary, daddy-issues-laden strain of rock that's still referred to as nu-metal continues to get substantial play on mainstream and alternative rock outlets. (Think bands that take cues from first-generation grunge, then apply the lessons learned from Alice in Chains' Facelift and Pearl Jam's Ten before slathering the whole thing in self-pity—bands like Shinedown and Godsmack come to mind.) But the stranglehold those plodding acts had as recently as two years ago is beginning to lessen, and there's even some crossover between the rock chart and the upper echelons of Billboard's Hot 100. (The third genre is known as "Triple-A"—that stands for Adult Album Alternative, the format embraced by Fordham University's WFUV, which favors singer-songwriters and other practitioners of the kind of rock heard in tastefully twee commercials—and probably explains a few of the outliers.) Gotye's inescapable "Somebody That I Used to Know," the current pop chart's No. 1, and "We Are Young," the former Hot 100 No. 1 from the Queen-gone-emo act fun., were on the rock chart. A smattering of bands that specialize in slightly different takes on the spindly Americana that brought Mumford & Sons recognition over here were present, as were other outliers like the French New Wave revivalists M83.

One thing really stuck out: More than one of the chart's 50 places were occupied by an act with a female singer, even though women have been pretty much exiled from the rock world's upper echelons since the days when bands like Hole and the Breeders could nab mainstage slots on Lollapalooza. It's tempting to blame this gender segregation on the early '00s rise of nu-metal, which operated in nearly diametric opposition to the teenpop that was selling millions at the time and which in its most noxious forms sounded like a hastily built tree house with a "NO GURLS ALLOWED" sign affixed to each rung of the ladder and posters of Dr. Dre on the walls. But even in 1996, the Lolla mainstage was a bros-only zone. (There were a few exceptions that proved this rule in the intervening years, though the fact that, say, the first charting single by the Christian-goth act Evanescence also featured an inept rap by a dude was enough to make one wonder if female-fronted rock acts did indeed have the radio equivalent of cooties for most of the decade.) The omnipresent Adele was there; so was the recently revived synth-goth act Garbage, and so was the first single from Norah Jones's quite good, Danger Mouse–produced Little Broken Hearts. Then there was a band called Dead Sara, who had a song called "Weatherman" in the chart's lower reaches.

I cut my musical teeth on hard rock and was a particular fan of those bands that liked to pair their pop-metal hooks with truncheons—the Los Angeles skid row dwellers Love/Hate, Slave to the Grind–era Skid Row, the batter-dipped blues of Every Mother's Nightmare. When I try to give these bands their due, some people will argue that there's little difference between the brand of hard rock practiced by those bands years ago and the Godsmack ilk, and that my preference is based in a desire to rearview-mirror my youth as much as it might be for the music itself. But one play of "Weatherman" might change those naysayers' minds and help make people realize what has been missing from this new strain of rock—not to mention what has been almost claustrophobically omnipresent.

"Weatherman" is a stomping ball-buster dragged along by a pealing guitar riff laid down by guitarist Siouxsie Medley, the sort of twisted-blues hard rock that feels like the product of people really enjoying playing the shit out of their instruments. (A couple of friends of mine compared it to Soundgarden, too, which makes sense; they did, after all, help goad teenaged me into setting my VCR for 120 Minutes in addition to Headbangers Ball.) And perhaps most importantly, it musically feels a lot more open than much of the compressed-to-2014 post-nu-metal that I've heard while tooling around the Spotify playlist that, week after week, tracks the songs on Billboard's chart. There's actually space between the instruments, as opposed to the sonic anvils popular rock acts so often throw down on record, and the result is less aurally oppressive and more electrifying.

Credit for the Los Angeles–based quartet's visceral thrills should also be given to lead singer Emily Armstrong, whose scraped-paint vocals veer from evil-incantation quiet to blood-curdling roar, making them stick out in a sea of grimly voiced Layne Staley wannabes in a glorious way. Late last month, I caught Dead Sara's set opening for the Used at Irving Plaza, and even though they were on early, the room was packed for their 30-minute run through their debut; Armstrong was full of charisma and gratitude, pushing her voice to the limit as her band triumphantly thrashed through its frizzled take on bluesy metal.

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8 comments
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Gentry June

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Erich Kuersten
Erich Kuersten

Thanks for this, Maura. Once you nailed the problem with today's 'alternative' so completely ('spindly Americana'!) I knew I could trust you about Dead Sara - you were damned right. I haven't been so instantly in love with a band I learned of from the Voice since The Hold Steady.

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Julian
Julian

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Paw
Paw

If we discussing the loss of great rock radio, please take a moment to shed a tear for WFNX in Boston. The Phoenix sold it to Clear Channel last month. For 29 years, WFNX played the best "alt rock" in New England and was uber focused on emerging local acts. It will be missed. Thank you.

jonathanbogart
jonathanbogart

Soundgarden's a great comparison. The one that kept coming to mind for me, though, was RATM: the gnarled funk of the rhythm section (as well, of course, as the sloganeering) makes me want to spaz out in a way I haven't in almost fifteen years. Great point about the lack of compression, too.

 
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