Sub Pop Records may be synonymous with the early days of Nirvana (still have cartoon-heart eyes for that “Love Buzz” Shocking Blue cover) and for the gloriously fuzzy and dank early Mudhoney records, but over the years the label has also expanded to include the crème de la crème of hip indie releases as well, from the engaging if noisy rock of Comets on Fire to the sexy escapist dream pop of Beach House.
Sure, you can still find some loud stuff as well. One of the best heavy releases this year is the Mike & The Melvins record Three Men and a Baby, featuring lost tapes from 17 years ago of King Buzzo and Dale Crover jamming alongside Mike Kunka of criminally underrated bass and drum noise band Godheadsilo (kind of conceptual precursors to Dead Unicorn or Lightning Bolt who had an amazing album called Elephantitis of the Night which had a song or two I used to cover in a short-lived local band called The Electric Ten Inch featuring myself, future Dead Unicorn drummer Zac Shaw, Nate and Mic a.k.a. the original rhythm section of Shabutie a.k.a. Coheed and Cambria and future engineer Damien Shannon … phew, that was a mouthful). But we are here today to talk about the shockingly danceable new Kristin Kontrol solo record Sub Pop has put out, a new side of Dee Dee from beloved indie darlings Dum Dum Girls.
Kristin Welchez will be hitting the stage at BSP on Wednesday, June 15 for an unreasonably reasonable $10 cover concert (8 p.m. doors) featuring some of the coolest synth-driven, throwback-’80s-by-way-of-the-future pop you’re likely to hear this summer. Synths are all the rage again, sure, but Kristin commands her material with a cool confidence and emotional resonance amidst the hooks. If I am not mistaken this is also the live debut of the project, but don’t quote me on that. Feeling spoiled, Kingston? You should be.
Is Kristin having as much fun as it sounds? “Definitely. I can’t wait to start performing,” she wrote via email. (Editor’s style note: I have given up on the hyphen between the e and the mail, but forgive me as I’m not ready to start writing Internet with a lower-case “i.” It’s a proper noun!)
“The musical direction I was heading wasn’t gelling with the established Dum Dum Girls sound. I didn’t want to dismantle the infrastructure of DDG, or release something that felt incongruent with the back catalogue. It would be an offense to the band and the fans. I conceded to the archetype and the only solution was the start fresh. Take back the kontrol.”
How was the creative process similar or dissimilar to working with Dum Dum Girls?
“Similar in that I wrote all the songs and then collaborated with my producers to record,” she wrote. “But the writing session was very long compared to past albums. I was actively trying to expand my sound, and almost make up for lost time, and there was a lot of trial and error in that. A necessary learning curve, though. I’d never welcomed this kind of collaboration before. I knew what I wanted in more abstract terms. Handing over the songs to the two producers, Kurt Feldman and Andrew Miller, was an act of faith. Hearing how they interpreted them was rewarding.”
The first track on her new record X-Communicate (streaming now at Pitchfork) is a deceptively shy but actually kind of confident number called “Show Me” that I absolutely love. “Show me what you’re made of. Is it love?” Kristin both asks and demands. The song deals with overcoming the “unbearably heavy” with a smooth and funky sort of optimistic yet gothic-tinged new wave mash-up twist of lime that reminds me of Siouxsie and the Banshees writing a Bowie song circa Station To Station. The refrain “There’s no need to change yourself/I’ll take you as you are” is pretty beautiful in an age where we swipe people on Tinder and casually dismiss one another’s rough edges, hopping to the next fish in the pond like rapidly changing TV channels with dulled eyes.
That’s the wonder of this record. It may sound borderline mechanical at times but it has a real sense of heart and some bouncy or fuzzy riffs amidst the dancefloor-ready beats (particularly “White Street”). Heck, the title track even sounds like The Human League was hijacked by a sultry siren from the 26th century. There is an awesome Donita Sparks (of L7) side project/solo record with a short lived band called The Stellar Moments that kind of also nailed a pop music like this, human and yet very forward thinking while still mining from some familiar and beloved pop history. “(Don’t) Wannabe” almost reminds me of Martika, which obviously rules.
“Don’t you wanna be something to someone?” asks Ms. Kontrol. She also sings that “Jesus Christ, we’re self-indulgent,” and it is nice that you aren’t sure if it is about falling completely into someone’s energy field or if she means it as a kiss-off for the whole human race too caught up in the rat race to find, or fight, for a real connection. This kind of expressiveness is the gaping hole of depth missing from the vast majority of commercial pop that might as well just be created for 20-second clips in phone, car and herpes cream commercials.
Kristin’s music may be her catchiest and at times most upbeat yet, but this is one of the more subtly complex and interesting albums of 2016. I look forward to flipping out alongside the more discerning amongst you at the show. And if for some reason you can’t make it, be sure to pick this up because it’s a real winner from someone actually dreaming to try to be themselves.