At first, I thought word hadn’t gotten to Kansas City. Which is kind of surprising, given cable and the internet and everything. But judging by Kristie Stremel’s new cd, 10 Years, I figured Kansas City hadn’t heard that rock&roll doesn’t work anymore. Stremel’s fourteen songs are built around the old stalwarts: bass, drums and electric guitar. They have these ringing, resilient chords that seem to rise to the sky. And her edgy, needy voice breaks like like a rock&roller.
It starts right on the opening cut, “Shimmer and Glow.” The music goes from intimate whisper to growl of desire, while the melody’s building to this hard-ass, declarative chorus. No whiff of irony. Instead, a straight forward, crisp, rhythm track with a sweet organ part slipping in to make it danceable. Rock&roll as face-to-face, direct communication: a way of telling someone how you feel.
That day’s over, right? I would have said there wasn’t a place for such music anymore. It’s an outmoded language: another generation’s language. The record’s produced by Lou Whitney, who also plays bass, and features some lead guitar by D. Clinton Thompson: both veterans of The Morells and The Skeletons, trad Mid-western rock bands. That helps explain the clear and somehow familiar sound of the record. And on the second cut, “Have It All,” as Stremel “buckles” in the presence of her lover, she mentions her Westerberg cd. Once she’s given a nod to one musical influence, it’s easy to spot others. The Replacements, sure, and Chrissie Hynde, Melissa Etheridge and Melencamp: you can play this game right through the cd and might even convince yourself you’re gaining insight. But in the end, the music’s too passionate for that. It’s hell-bent on getting over, and, if it picks up bits and pieces from a thousand hit songs, well, that’s the material at hand. “You can have my jeans, my Westerberg cd,// you can have the watch my grandma gave to me// take it all.” Who cares about history, about styles and stuff? “I trade it all for you.”
It’s passion that’s the key to 10 Years and, I think, explains why rock&roll still makes sense for Stremel. On “4 South East,” she’s scared. There’s “a bad 80’s song on the radio,” and she keeps driving by her lover’s house without going in. “What am I waiting for?” Note: the song isn’t scared. The song has a pop hook you could hang your dress on. And a kind of revved-up power that pushes her to make the move, stop the circling, and “go get the one you love.” It’s music designed–from lyrics to performance–to give courage. On “Big Dreams,” the question of courage–of breaking the cycle and taking action — spins out into larger issues. She’s driving to a job she hates, day after day, and what if that goes on for twenty years? What happens to her big dreams?
Those are rock&roll questions. Oh, people ask them in other idioms, from country to hip-hop, but for a long time rock&roll was the kingdom of big dreams. And to ask what happened to them–guitars ringing in the background–is also to ask what happened to rock&roll. Where’d it go? What happened to the potential you can still hear on the oldies channel? For Stremel, these aren’t theoretical questions. It isn’t about music going in or out of style. It’s more urgent than that. As if she were saying, “What happened to this thing I cared about? I need to know, because I gotta go on from here. I gotta start where it left off. And to do that, I need to understand what happened.”
You can hear her asking the question on “Paper Heart,” as she punches holes in somebody’s sheetrock walls, the sound behind her a mountain–no, avalanche–of guitars. And you can hear it on “Sweet Marie,” where she keeps wondering aloud if this is “real”–questioning the bitter-sweetness of the chord changes even as she works her way through them. She knows both what and how she’s asking sound almost old-fashioned. Fine. So, what’s that mean?
The first time I listened to 10 Years, I got this picture of someone driving one of those long, dead-straight, prairie roads. Missouri corn fields flat and plain to both sides. And in that beautiful monotony, you yearn for the slightest curve, slightest touch. You squeeze the songs on the radio for whatever juice remains; rework the passion of the music out this kind of starved need.
But listening more, I don’t think the songs inhabit that regional a landscape. Take “Leap of Faith,” with its anthemic buzz guitar. We’re in town. There’s a little bar scene. People are leaving each other voice mails. Cable and internet do reach here, and they bring the same cultural rat’s nest as anywhere else in the country. The streets have the same hard jangle of Burger Kings and dry cleaners. The issue isn’t how little is on the horizon, but how much. And the drama is in breaking through that. The leap of faith means crashing that wall of familiar stuff to find each other.
It’s as much a musical challenge as an emotional one. Given the basic tools–the same ones that come through the speakers Wal-Mart, or the phone when you’re on hold — how do you find feeling? On “Good to You,” Stremel rides toward the big question on a fuzz guitar that rattles behind her. Like shaky hands. Like car keys when you’re nervous. Then, when she gets to the main point, she drops everything. “What do I–what do I–what do I — mean to you?” gets stuttered over just drums. As if she had finally arrived at the core question and had to trust the beat alone to carry her towards the future.
Stremel’s not known nationally. She’s released 10 Years on her own label available through her website (www.kristiestremel.com.). But now that I’ve lived with the cd awhile, I can’t help but think it’s going to be heard. Like the rest of us, Stremel’s been told that things are hopeless. That the past, present, and future are disposable. The evidence lies in the litter all around. Yet, she’s managed to grab some shards and forge this determined, tuneful, rocking collection. It’s only a question of time before the word gets out.
DANIEL WOLFF is a poet and author of the excellent biography of the great Sam Cooke, You Send Me, as well as the recent collection of Ernest Withers’ photographs The Memphis Blues Again. Wolff’s Grammy-nominated essay on Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers is one of the highlights of CounterPunch’s collection on art, music and sex: Serpents in the Garden. Wolff also wrote the text for the collection of Ernest Wither’s photographs in Negro League Baseball. His latest book is 4th of July/Asbury Park: A History of the Promised Land (Bloomsbury USA) For the past year, he and director Jonathan Demme have been working on a documentary about post-Katrina New Orleans. He can be reached at: email@example.com