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[whitespace] The Digital Divide

Kitty Craft's new album, 'Catskills,' proves that a woman's place is in electronica

By Michelle Goldberg

ALTHOUGH FEMALE DJs and producers aren't nearly as rare as they once were, a gender divide still exists in much electronic music. On release after release, boys lay down the beats over which angel-voiced girls sing. To be sure, this formula has resulted in much of the best music of the last decade--think of Tricky's darkly magical collaborations with Martina Topley-Bird or A Guy Called Gerald's recent album, Essence, a gorgeous collection of vocal, drum 'n' bass.

Yet these records still tend to leave one with the impression that it's the guys who are in control, with the women reduced almost to glorified instruments. In a sense, by shifting attention away from lead singers and toward producers, electronic music has given female vocalists less credit than they've ever received before.

In the past, a singer like Topley-Bird would at least have been considered a member of the band. Now, even though her eerily girlish, snake-charming croon pervades nearly every song on Tricky's first two records, they're still considered his records.

Even when musical relationships seem more equal--as in married-couple electronic acts like Everything but the Girl and Looper--this old-fashion division of labor still tends to adhere. The husband handles the hardware and the rhythm, while the wife provides the emotion and the melody.

This isn't meant to denigrate singers like Everything but the Girl's Tracey Thorn--indeed, her contribution is doubtlessly the more important one, as it would be far more beguiling to listen to her sing a cappella than it would to hear her husband's music without lyrics.

Still, given the democratic potential of new technology, it's sad to think that women aren't seizing hold of it the way men are. After all, digital techniques mean that musicians can now put out richly layered, sparkling songs alone in their bedrooms. Thus it has the potential to empower a whole generation of new-school singer/songwriters armed with samplers instead of guitars.

So far, though, only a couple of women have taken to expressing Riot Grrl's DIY dream with loops and drum machines. Most famous is Kathleen Hannah, whose Julie Ruin and Le Tigre projects married warped disco to fierce feminist agitprop.

Equally inspiring, though, is Kitty Craft, a.k.a. Pamela Valfer, whose new album, Catskills, combines loping beats, eccentric samples, subtle guitar, shimmering effects and plaintive, guileless vocals to create an album that substitutes dreamy idiosyncrasy for dance music anonymity.

Melodic and immediately accessible, Catskills is a sublime combination of electronic production and spare, airy indie-pop sensibility, and the album suggests that despite the glut of generic techno out there, digital music still opens up myriad unexplored avenues.

IN INTERVIEWS, Minneapolis-based Valfer speaks of collecting weird vinyl at estate sales and the like--she's especially partial to strange religious records. That may explain why the sounds on Catskills are so hard to place.

The album's first song, "Comeback Queen," begins with a bright, toylike piano looped over a beat that, for some reason, reminds me of a little kid jumping on a trampoline--it has an innocent, summery feel. Then Valfer's strangely pleasing, almost otherworldly voice wafts in, both sweet and slightly nasal, the words often blurred into the mix.

Throughout, she seems to be hiding in her music, her singing sonically prominent but intelligible. Occasionally, a clear word or phrase will drift up from the track's soft whirls: "It's not so bad to be adored" on the softly psychedelic "San Fran," for instance. Still, her words matter less than the way her voice weaves into her spare, beautiful collage tunes.

"My Head Falls Softly," one of the record's most exquisite tracks, combines an empyreal choir sample that sounds, bizarrely, as if it's intoning the line "my little submarine," with a light haze of crackling feedback. The whole thing has a warm, autumnal glow that works wonderfully with Valfer's vocal.

Her phrases run together like watercolors as she sings, "Hearing the rain fall on windows above my head falls softly." Hearing it, the delectable muted sadness of a lazy, gray Sunday washes over you. This is electronic music that speaks to a world far removed from stylized nightclub insularity.

ONE HATES to be too essentialist when talking about female artists, but Kitty Craft offers a distinctly girlie take on techno. Valfer's first full-length album, released early last year on Kindercore Records, was called Beats and Breaks From the Flower Patch, a cleverly pastoral twist on the macho urbanism that dominates DJ culture. On Beats and Breaks and again with Catskills, she uses techniques gleaned from boy-dominated styles to create summer-breeze soundscapes laced with personal pathos.

Of course, in recent years, both men and women have married digital production to folk intimacy. The Beta Band (and Beta Band singer Steve Mason's solo project, King Biscuit Time) combines lulling electronic beats and loops with stoned, earthbound but stargazing vocals.

Still, most of the artists mixing dance-floor trickery with emotional immediacy are women, from underground innovators like Kerry Walker, who spiced her singer/songwriter debut, Lipsbury Pinfold, with breakbeats and ambient washes, to pop avant-gardists like Cibo Matto and Björk.

Eternal mainstream bellwether Madonna's new album, Music, uses chic French house effects to back her melancholy crooning. While the heroes of club culture spin sounds that are functional, abstract and often impersonal, many women have taken the music in a more narrative, concretely communicative direction.

Aside from Cibo Matto, though, many of these artists don't create their own beats. Valfer does, fashioning sounds as expressive as her singing. Much dance music cherishes the idea of uniting a dance floor in a single euphoric pulse--of getting everyone to feel the same thing. Kitty Craft's music works differently. It's one person speaking to another. Rather than trying to create emotions, it communicates them, evoking sadness, solitude and reflection as well as effervescence. The tools may be the same as those used to create the latest nightclub smash, but the music itself can be savored alone, when the lights come up.

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From the October 19-25, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. MetroActive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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