Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

By Roni Sarig
Published April 27, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

If the ultimate failure of Nirvana's early '90s rock revolution was not already made abundantly clear by the wretched alt-rock that followed, the case of Gina Birch and her late, great, all-female post-punk band the Raincoats provides further evidence of the limitations of Kurt Cobain's influence. At Cobain's request, Nirvana's label, Geffen (which, in 1993, was not interested in saying no to Kurt) reissued the Raincoats' three albums (recorded between 1979 and 1984) as well as a new record by the briefly re-formed group.

But while Cobain's enthusiastic stamp of approval could lead the horse of public taste to water, it would not drink the Raincoats. By 1996, Alanis Morissette was the closest thing we had to a girl-punk superstar, and the Raincoats were once again history. Kurt's folly, though, had a lingering impact: the Raincoats' music was once again available (on CD!), and Birch returned to the business of making records. Separating from fellow Raincoat Ana da Silva, Birch formed her own band, the Hangovers, who have now released a debut album on the Olympia, Wash., indie Kill Rock Stars, a label known for Raincoats-inspired bands such as Sleater-Kinney.

For the most part, "Slow Dirty Tears" continues in the direction taken by the Raincoats' reunion record, "Looking in the Shadows," toward more conventional rock arrangements and pop melodies. Where Birch and company spent the '80s reimagining punk as a detailed and intimate expression of feminine creativity, with the Hangovers Birch often sounds willing to indulge her more easily digestible, and perhaps less ambitious, tendencies. Along with a handful of guitar-and-vocals-driven rockers, Birch offers for our dancing pleasure the low-fi disco noir of "Sweetest Pain"; for our classic rock jones, the sultry twist-and-shout of "Monster"; and for laughs, the pathetic "We Had a Really Smashing Time."

On the other hand, by incorporating dub elements into the bass, percussion and overall production on songs like "Phone" and "Sitting on Top of the World," Birch returns to an earlier Raincoats styling that had largely fallen off in later work. Much of "Slow Dirty Tears" employs dub's linear structure, building on dynamics rather than chord changes. With trippy effects and samples added for ambience, tracks like "I'm Glad I'm Me Today" sound as nebulous and as post-rock as the creations of Tricky or Tortoise. Like those acts, the Hangovers derive inspiration from earlier post-punk explorations (which, after all, Birch helped forge) and apply it to the new textures afforded by '90s technology.

Strangely, though, the performer "Slow Dirty Tears" brings most to mind is Bob Dylan, whose phrasing Birch often apes in her breathy, girlish squeal. Like Dylan's recent triumph "Time Out of Mind," Birch's late-career resurgence is intimate and personal in a way that allows her various moods to intermingle rather than clash. She can be both passionate and goofy, mature and contemporary. And like Dylan's Grammy winner, "Slow Dirty Tears" is an understated and unexpected gem.

Roni Sarig

Roni Sarig is a regular contributor to Salon. His forthcoming book, "The Secret History of Rock: The Most Influential Bands You've Never Heard," will be published by Billboard Books in July.

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