If ever there was a lead-of track from 2006 that could make someone instantly turn their head in the direction the sound was coming from, if not jump out of their seat completely, it’s “Silverback”, song number one from Coward, the second album by Brooklyn noise-meisters Made Out of Babies. Nothing raises the hairs on the back of one’s neck quite like 11 seconds of five overdubbed Julie Christmases screaming at top volume, over a musical backdrop that’s equal parts Jesus Lizard, Botch, and Melvins. Call it what you will: metal, hardcore, noise rock, indie. Whatever the label, this is aggressive music at its most bracing, performed by a band that has learned to refine its previously somewhat derivative style, and featuring a lead singer who has undergone a transformation from a promising young vocal to one of the most electrifying frontwomen in music today.
The dissonant style of hardcore in which Made Out of Babies specializes has always relied on blasts of brute force, such as massive shrieks of guitars and lurching rhythms pounded with all the subtlety of Animal from the Muppets. But for all the brilliance shown on landmark albums like Jane Doe and We are the Romans, for many, the lead vocals remain a dicey issue for many curious new listeners, as countless bands continue to employ the requisite screamers, and by the time we figure out just what the hell they’re prattling on about, the lyrics mine the same old hardcore standbys of Overcoming Adversity and how wonderful the Hardcore Community is. More often than not, the music is at the very least cathartic, but as effective as that is, where’s the charisma?
Enter Julie Christmas, who brings both an absolutely phenomenal voice and a truly twisted poetic style to Made Out of Babies, elevating what would be a good, workmanlike band into something entirely unique. 2005’s Trophy showed hints of inventiveness, but in retrospect, in spite of Christmas’s blunt screams, it sounds like she’s holding back a touch. On the revelatory Coward, however, she takes the reins of this band completely, using it as a showcase from some of the most stunning vocal work by a female on a heavy album in the last decade. It sure doesn’t hurt that the album was produced by one Steve Albini, who perfectly counterbalances that cacophony reminiscent of Albini’s old band Big Black with such versatile singing.
To put it succinctly, Christmas completely dominates the album, alternating between a playful, childlike coo and ear-splitting screams, with plenty of room for nuance in between. The riveting “Proud to Drown” is a perfect example of her growing range, as well as her lyrical skill. Her cut-and-paste imagery is indelible as her voice seethes (“Dark skies crawling on cold tiles / Legs like they’ve been skinned alive / I can feel your insides shake”), then quickly erupting into primal cries, her voice cracking like that of a pubescent girl, before answering guitarist Brian Tobin’s oddly melodic bridge with a soft croon. She sounds on the verge of a complete breakdown on “Fed”, her performance measured enough to not completely break down into complete histrionics.
“Death in April” (based on a poem by Penny Geoghan) and “Fed” both contain Christmas’s most stirring singing, the rest of the band capably matching her step for step (Matthew Egan’s huge drum tone bearing that unmistakably Albini-esque touch), yet the other three members remain mindful of the undeniable fact that Christmas is the proverbial straw that stirs the drink, allowing her to take full charge. And she flourishes, seizing the opportunity to take Made Out of Babies’ music to an entirely new level. It’s the kind of attention-grabbing performance that could inspire fellow female hardcore fans to follow suit, which, in the male-dominated world of hardcore, would be a very welcome change.