Adam Kissick for NPR
Lauren Mayberry of Chvrches performs at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, in March.
Lauren Mayberry of Chvrches performs at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, in March. Adam Kissick for NPR
In my line of work you hear about new bands every day. Maybe there's a cool new electronic duo coming out of Silverlake in L.A., or a lo-fi trio reinventing Motown from an illegal loft in Bushwick or an amazing heir to the Amy Winehouse throne emerging from a seaside town in England. All day, every day, the buzz is sounding. Recently, The Guardian featured a compellingly gloomy Mancunian quartet called PINS as its New Band of the Day; a publicist I trust insisted I go hear this London-based group called Savages; several good rock friends were independently obsessed with a Glaswegian synth-pop trio called Chvrches. It was only when I spent an hour in front of the TV one night watching Rectify and casually Googling these new artists that I realized: Wait, all three of these groups are led by women.
For as long as rock 'n' roll has been around, women have been in the mix, as songwriters, performers and muses. But even in the '90s, which saw the rise of Riot Grrrl culture and the mainstream prominence of powerhouse female rockers like Courtney Love and Gwen Stefani and PJ Harvey, the first thing generally mentioned about any band fronted by or entirely comprising women was that it was fronted by or entirely comprised women. Not so much this time. In fact, little effort is being made to paint these groups — who are all from the U.K. and formed within the past year and a half — as part of a cohesive scene, which is good since they're all from different cities and sound nothing alike.
My favorite photo of PINS, which released its LuvU4Lyf EP in the fall, shows the band members striding through a quaint small town street decked out in full-on CBGB-era rocker thrifted threads and holding hands. They look like a gang of secretly sentimental thugs — and that's exactly how they sound, too, like a motorcycle gang whose members spend their days defending their gritty turf then going home and dancing in their underwear to The Beach Boys. That's a party you could invite Chvrches to. The Glasgow-based group is fronted by the elfin Lauren Mayberry, a former law and journalism student, who connected with her synth-playing band mates, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty, via the city's intimate music scene. Their online breakthrough came when the blog for Neon Gold — a label known for earmarking some of the best dance rock bands of the recent era, including Gotye, Ellie Goulding and Passion Pit — posted the shimmering, confident "Lies." The Recover EP capitalized on that momentum and now we're awaiting the band's debut full-length.
It's a testament to the potency of Savages that they stand out so starkly when compared with these other promising bands. To borrow a kind of sleazy term used by scouts in the music industry, Savages are very "fully formed," which is to say they have a clearly defined look (tailored androgyny), sound (ferocious post-punk) and philosophy about the world (it's damaged and in need of a violent rescuing). The combined effect is that they feel inevitable. When you first hear a new band there's a sense of you, the listener, trying them on. Do I like this? From Note 1, Savages seem to have answered this question on the listener's behalf. Their debut, Silence Yourself, is out May 7 on Matador Records.
The collective rise of PINS, Chvrches and Savages does not indicate a sudden lack of sexism in rock 'n' roll. And I'm not suggesting that the gender demographics aren't interesting. That image of PINS is powerful in part because it features four rocker women in a version of a pose typically struck by four rocker men. When I saw Savages perform at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, the entire band was wearing all black except for the blue scrunchie in drummer Fay Milton's hair and the bright red Dorothy pumps on singer Jehnny Beth's feet. All my guy friends have goofy crushes on Chvrches' Mayberry. The fact that these artists are women, in other words, is not beside the point, it's just not the only point being made. And that's a good sign.