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More great grunge from Dead Sara

Kevin Taghabon and Mary Code

August 10, 2018

A filthy hot summer is the perfect time for some old school hard rock. The sauna of Los Angeles still seems to churn out more semi-unknown mega-talented rock bands than anywhere else on the planet. To this end, Dead Sara have emerged with their second EP (fourth release overall) in 10 years. The six track EP has some of their best work, and the band has not lost any of their fire after a decade of struggling along and jumping between labels. Dead Sara continues to channel the style and sound of the best 90s grunge while sounding fresh and relevant. Lead singer Emily Armstrong has more than a few shades of Kurt Cobain within.

“I guess I'm unamerican”

The first song, “Times to Remember” is celebratory, and the second track, “Anybody” is largely about personal loneliness. The feeling of not belonging bleeds well into the next song. “Unamerican” is easily the best song on the EP. The track was the first played live from this new batch, originally titled “Alien”, a likely reference to the odious phrase, “illegal alien.” Armstrong does sing, “I want to be an alien” several times at the end of the song. It was clever to switch the name and get ahead of accusations that the band is “unpatriotic”. The entire track is a bludgeon on the head of anti-women politics. “I'm a good Samaritan/ Yeah, a psychopath/ I had to sweat off/ chemicals in a bubble bath/ The all-American girl, lesbo-gay maniac.”

Armstrong repeatedly laments in jest that she falls short of every expectation leveled at her. This is a point of rage and pride. “I'm not your model citizen/ No, I'm not your daughter/ And I'm not your bitch/ I guess I'm unamerican” is the hook. There is no mistaking the intention of the song when the instruments abruptly cut out before a chorus and Armstrong screams, “Well, fuck this playing around/ Don't give a fuck if it allowed/ Well, fuck you Donald Trump!/ Fuck this, fuck everyone.” 

The closing track, “Heaven's Got a Back Door,” takes a similar line, rejecting the puritanism that infects American society. “I'm through feeling sorry/ For the things that I can't choose/ If I made it this far being who I am/ Maybe heaven's got a back door too/ When will I stop running/ From the things I know are true/...I've never been on the same sidewalk as a steeple/ May we take notice in regard to the unknown.” Armstrong refuses to exist in a way that will please those who told her they knew better for her. She is proud of rejecting these values, but at the same time is insecure about her station in life. “Yeah maybe I should just call in dead and quit my job/ And lose my 9 to 5 and throw my television out” she sings on “Times to Remember.”

The EP's sound is right at home with their other music, short of the bass. In 2017, founding bass player Chris Null left the band. His absence is notable on a couple of tracks, feeling a bit emptier on the back end than older songs. Outside of this the band plays in excellent harmony, both in live recordings and on the EP. Dead Sara often stretch out the bridge of their hit song “Weatherman” during live performances. In these minutes, Armstrong loses herself on the stage floor or does theatrical shouts of unscheduled anger. Then, every time, the hook suddenly hits and the whole band crashes into their instruments again. It's quite impressive.

“First thing when I wake up, no makeup”

This is no newly-polished-for-Top-40 trash. This point should be stressed, as this is a female-fronted act. Hard rock is a genre that is still overwhelmingly dominated by straight white men, as Torontonian music journalist Laina Dawes chronicled excellently in What Are You Doing Here: A Black Woman's Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal. Armstrong and lead guitarist Siouxie Medley have been the frontwomen of the band since they became friends as teenagers 15 years ago. Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters proclaimed in 2013, “Dead Sara should be the next biggest rock band in the world,” after their self-titled debut (2011) got them a fair share of attention.

Despite their rising stars and growing audience, Armstrong and Medley never overtly sexualize themselves in shows or videos (spare “Mona Lisa”, which is a critique of decadence and sexual conservatism set at a masquerade party). One can imagine this being a real pain in the ass for record company executives who know they could easily market good-looking women to overwhelmingly male consumers, if only the female artists would lean into the role. Armstrong is also not a straight woman. There seems to be no interest in turning Dead Sara into The Pretty Reckless or t.A.T.u.

This is largely speculation, as the band has not explained this explicitly. The constellation of radio play, talent, and a boost from Grohl and others gave the feeling that the band was on the path to the mainstream. Five years and three record labels later, the band is still chugging along, but nowhere near a household name.

They've got a track here for this too. “One Day We'll Make It Big” explores the dreams of young artists in Los Angeles trying to reach their dreams. “Naked on the floor/ In love and insecure/Smoking in the garage/ 18 in America/...One day we'll make it out/ Make it outta Hollywood/ And don't change/ Livin' in my Chevrolet”. This is autobiographical. Armstrong takes the bridge to tell us that their relative fame and success has not lent them stability, but the dream lives on beyond their material problems. We can all relate to this. Whether we achieve what we want, reminisce for a more naive youth, or never get to live our best lives, the ache for a better world is human essence. “Bored teenagers, with a gold-colored dream/ Ten years later, still tryna make a living/ In the City of Angels, wish I knew what I know now”.

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