Now traveling rapidly into the forgotten corners of history, the grunge era was pretty damn exciting for high schoolers in the early 1990s.
Raised on the sanitized pap of the 1980s and its “he who dies with the most toys wins” aesthetic, kids were ready for the raw emotional appeal and dressed-down anti-prep of Nirvana, L7, Pearl Jam, Bikini Kill, Screaming Trees, Babes in Toyland, and Soul Asylum.
“I’m so ugly,” Kurt Cobain sings on “Lithium,” “that’s OK cuz so are you.”
Before quite so much money got involved, and pop culture began to elevate figures like Cobain and Eddie Vedder to the exclusion of less marketable peers, grunge was a place where women rocked out alongside dudes, where class was hard to discern since everyone was wearing jeans and dirty flannels, and where it was cool to be in touch with your feelings.
Sure, one of those feelings was anger, and because it was then (and now) much more socially palatable for men to be angry than women, much of grunge soon morphed into the aggro and nu-metal and rap-rock that came to dominate the 1990s and early 2000s, while the Riot Grrrl movement was left to see if it could find a stage at Lilith Fair or ply their wares in the pop-punk trade.
Nowadays, that kind of guitar-fronted, rock-focused heavy music is largely absent from popular music altogether, although Nirvana’s Dave Grohl sometimes seems to remain a token remnant of that bygone era. A sort of mascot, polished and made cartoonish.
This week, though, Portland’s Weakened Friends keep the flame alive with the release of “Quitter,” what may be the best grunge record of the past decade – anywhere – even if Sonia Sturino, the Kurt Cobain of the classic rock trio, was a toddler when Nirvana’s run ended with Cobain’s death.
“I think maybe I was influenced by stuff that was influenced by that,” Sturino reasoned when asked how she got so grungy. She’s sitting with me and bassist Annie Hoffman (they’re married), while drummer Adam Hand looks on via Facetime, from Boston. Growing up in Toronto, Sturino said she was “super into Metric,” along with other Canadian indie rock stalwarts like Broken Social Scene, Land of Talk, and Stars.
You could hear their influence, especially, in the Box Tiger, Sturino’s band that started in Toronto, migrated to Portland, and then sort of migrated back: a bit more poppy, more ironic, more classically “indie.”
On Weakened Friends’ work, though, there was an inward turn, an exploration of Sturino’s love/hate relationship with her own talent. “We are the worst kind of people,” she sings on “Miserable,” from the debut “Gloomy Tunes” EP. On “Won Yet” she assures us that “It’s not your fault that I was falling apart.”
But she was still toying with deliveries, still working in some pop-punk (some great “oooo-oo-oo” work in the chorus), still doing some of that “indie rock” accent.
By their first full-length, 2018’s “Common Blah,” Sturino and the band – then with drummer Cam Jones – had found their stride, Sturino investing deeper in her vocals, a vibrating full-body emote, and penning lyrics that mined the pointlessness of contemporary existence: “I am just a waste of your time.” It’s no wonder songs like “Peel” and “Blue Again” resonated with a generation coming into adulthood in the time of Trump.
“I hate everything you say, yeah, get away from me,” she sings on “Hate Mail,” featuring grunge precursor J. Mascis of Dinosuar Jr. “I hate everything we’re doing, yeah, it’s a waste of me.”
The brand-new “Quitter,” however, is a level up, yet again, particularly because the record just sounds terrific, thanks to the combined engineering talents of Hoffman and Hand, who’ve been playing in bands together since their Berklee days (check out the Field Effect) more than a decade ago.
The guitars have more punch. The dynamics are crisp, with full stops beautifully closed off and reentries hitting like those scenes where superheroes slam into the earth and leave a divot. Sturino’s vocals are supported by backing that’s subtly settled in behind her, always augmenting, never distracting. The percussion adds body and warmth.
The early EPs, Hoffman said, “were quick and dirty. For Common Blah, we recorded at the same place (Zippah Recordings, where Hoffman holds her day job), but we recorded to protocols and put a little more time into it. But we weren’t too precious about it.”
For “Quitter,” let’s just say they got precious.
“It was a byproduct of the pandemic and having time,” Hoffman says, and also a result of the studio that Hand, who installs studios for a living, created in Hoffman and Sturino’s Portland home. They had time to experiment with things like a mallet hitting the side of the oven. It’s the rare record that’s both great and high volume in the car and when heard through a good set of headphones, where a lot more detail is revealed.
“We did a really cool build-out in the house,” Hoffman said with professional pride. “We did 90 percent of the guitars there.”
You can hear how effective it was on the live-streamed home show they played early in the pandemic, where Sturino camped out in the bedroom, Hoffman laid bass in the kitchen, and Hand had his kit set up in the living room while a fire burned in the fireplace and Hand watched “The Empire Strikes Back” right up until his first snare hit was needed.
Unlike so many of the iPhone shows that we were forced to make do with, this set sounded spectacular, like listening in on the recording of a studio album.
“We felt like, if we’re going to do a show with the State Theatre and WCLZ,” Sturino said, “we should probably do something cool. That was one of the only live streams that we did where it really felt like a live show.”
And what does that feel like?
“I think it’s something spiritual,” Sturino said. “It’s a connecting that you can’t explain. People are like, ‘I care about this.’”
That connection is what’s made Weakened Friends comfortable getting back out on the road this fall, playing indoor gigs across the country, despite the pandemic’s extended grip.
“(Last year) was going to be a big year,” Sturino rues. “It sucked just in the sense that it was finally getting to a point where I was proud of what was happening. We were on a three-week run right before everything shut down. We had to drive home from Nebraska in the middle of the tour.”
And while there’s a lot to be said for having plenty of time to make the record they always wanted to make, that doesn’t mean the band didn’t get a little restless, especially since most of the record was written as the pandemic hit and the album was finishing up as 2020 came to a close.
“I like to make records,” Sturino said, “but the purpose of writing songs is to share the music with people. I get my catharsis in getting to experience the music with other people, and here we were making a record in isolation, and then you’re sitting on this record, and you can’t share it and you don’t know when you’re going to play live and I was to the point where I thought I might quit playing music because this is not what I want to do.”
So their tour through Baltimore and Nashville, Cleveland and Columbus this October came just in time, and the sold-out shows that will accompany the release of the record this Friday (Nov. 19) in Boston kick off another run that brings them to Portland House of Music and Events Dec. 3, before they start the New Year opening for the Beths and then headlining their own European tour for most of April and May.
They also say, however, that the people who go to the types of shows they play are generally pretty caring and thoughtful. “It felt safe,” Sturino said. “That makes me feel better about the type of music we make and the community we’re in.”
Why else would she feel so comfortable opening her veins in front of them every night? These songs are personal to the point of self-immolation, generally built from a beginning where Sturino’s vocals are accompanied only by her electric guitar, before the drums and bass and everything else is layered on her like strips of papier-mache.
“Tunnels” has a strut to it, a sharp staccato rhythm, and Sturino leans into the girlish quality of her voice to announce “I’m obnoxious and I hate myself.” But then the chorus goes big and indicts the paper-thin quality of modern discourse: “I don’t even feel a fucking thing lately/ Talk like the movies just to get something out.”
Big chorus? The pregnant pause that precedes the chorus in “What You Like” is a genuine chills moment, before Sturino self-eviscerates: “Maybe if I thought about anybody but myself/ And maybe if I did the things I said I would, instead of just sitting around … I wish I was what you like.” Later, it becomes “I wish I was what you’re like.”
“A lot of my recent songwriting inspiration has come from my brain trying to sabotage itself,” Sturino said. “You suck, you should quit, why are you doing this? It’s me telling that voice to shut the hell up. There’s all that anxiety, depression, and loss, but then you get to play big fuzzy guitars and scream about it.”
She even takes on the burden of the loss of a friend in “25th”: “You were going through it/ And, I, I should have helped you through it.”
But there is defiance here, too, in the delivery and the raw energy, regardless of the lyrics and their meaning. This isn’t shoegaze miasma. This is something you can thrash about to.
And no worries: “I won’t fuck up,” Sturino sings on the closing “Point of Interest,” “I won’t fuck up myself.” And that promise is backed by all the volume the band can produce – guitars, bass, something that sounds a little like a trumpet, and a set of gang vocals that will be impossible not to sing along with in person.
No, Weakened Friends don’t seem to have fucked up anything at all.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].
2 weeks, 5 songs
• Amy Allen, “RIP” — Did we say Amy Allen needs to release an extended work? Well, on Friday, six new songs dropped as part of a surprise “AWW” EP. This tune is a close-mic’d indictment of someone who took Allen’s “raw emotion and put your name on it,” which sounds a lot like, oh, say, Harry Styles: “You’re a really insecure person.” Ouch.
• The American Classic, “Damned” — With a sharp and biting lead guitar riff from Kenney Li, this is some seriously high-energy rock, and a great little video: “The hell with it all, that’s just the way it is.”
• Bensbeendead., “Walking Backwards” — A dark and searing piece, Bensbeendead. continues to get more esoteric, intricate, and interesting. “Fuck me I’m faded/ thought I could make it/ I fell on my face” – not if you ask me. The bridge and close here is just something no one would do.
• The Wonderfuls, “Crowded Heart” — For fans of outsider art, this is a 20-song record that has flashes of the New Wave and punk revolution of the ’70s in New York.
• Joel Thetford with Ian Riley, “Whiskey” — Reminiscent of the early Old 97s records, this is a fun three-minute bit full of saloon piano and fat-bottomed guitar that trades on classic alt-country sounds and tropes: “This whiskey keeps bringing me down.”
— Sam Pfeifle