Working with a skeleton crew staff for 10 years under the auspices of the mighty Sub Pop, Hardly Art has carved out a rich niche in indieland as an incubator of smart, tuneful rock, with an emphasis on female-fronted acts. As Sean Nelson put it in his feature hailing Hardly Art’s nomination for the 2016 Stranger Genius award, “It's worth taking a moment to consider how influential this label has been in fostering the current golden age of Seattle rock music.”
Indeed. Hardly Art’s championing of post-punk (Protomartyr, Talbot Tagora), electro-goth (Grave Babies, Black Marble), feminist pop-punk (Tacocat, the Julie Ruin), new wave/glam (Gazebos), garage-rock (Unnatural Helpers, Deep Time), girl-group revivalism (Hunx & His Punx), surf-pop (La Luz), and other subgenres has made it one of the most interesting labels in America. To hail this achievement, The Stranger sifted through hundreds of the Hardly Art catalog’s stellar songs to present 10 tracks that we think represent its peaks.
Chastity Belt, “Time to Go” (from 2015’s Time to Go Home). An exquisitely poised rock song that captures the doldrums of a stultifying party and/or relationship, and then shifts into ecstatic escapism with the understated brio of the Feelies at their mid-’80s zenith.
The Julie Ruin, “I Decide” (from 2016’s Hit Reset). An ominous anthem of self-empowerment sung by Kathleen Hanna, “I Decide” speeds up the doomsday-disco rhythm of Tony Conrad and Faust’s “From the Side of Man and Womankind” and festoons it with tense synth ostinatos and mushroom clouds of noise guitar. The breezy, backing “na na na na na”s add a wonderful incongruity to the song.
Tacocat, “Hey Girl” (from 2014’s NVM). Any song that makes me think of ’80s band Shop Assistants (imagine the Scottish Ramones, but better) makes my heart do 360º dunks. And that’s what “Hey Girl” does, with righteous aplomb. Attacking the verbal harassment with which women deal hourly, Tacocat’s Emily Nokes succinctly puts these assholes in their place in under two minutes while the music surges with a take-no-shit bravado.
Gazebos, “Just Get High” (from 2016’s Gazebos). Combined with Daisyheroin’s lysergic video for it, “Just Get High” fucks with your equilibrium through trippy jaggedness and jitteriness. It’s one of the most extravagant encapsulations of decadence this city’s generated in a long time, like the B-52s and Pretenders going head to head in the drug den.
Talbot Tagora, “Replacing the Northwest” (from 2009’s Lessons in the Woods or a City). One of Hardly Art’s most rancorous acts, Talbot Tagora only released one album, but it scalded upon impact. “Replacing the Northwest” flaunts TT’s penchant for odd tonalities and surprising dynamics, creating a kind of No Wave pop that leaves abrasions on your ears.
La Luz, “Black Hole, Weirdo Shrine” (from 2015’s Weirdo Shrine). A gorgeous gush of Spaghetti Western-indebted rock, like UK shoegaze queens Lush meeting Italian soundtrack master Ennio Morricone on a Burbank back lot. The lines “My mind is hazy but these freaks are crazy,” sung in Shana Cleveland’s opiated croon, conveys the spellbinding blur of “Black Hole, Weirdo Shrine.” So damned intoxicating.
Unnatural Helpers, “Sunshine/Pretty Girls” (from 2010’s Cracked Love & Other Drugs). Singing drummer/songwriter Dean Whitmore cracked the code to Guided by Voices-like pop on this 114-second classic. It’s one of the most sing-along-able anti-romance songs to emerge in this decade. Once heard, it’s impossible to forget.
Fergus & Geronimo, “Marky Move” (from 2012’s Funky Was the State of Affairs). Fergus & Geronimo are sly emulators of esoteric musicians and they don’t take themselves seriously, though they’re all top-notch musicians. On their first album, Unlearn., they nodded to early Mothers of Invention (who does that in the 21st century?), while on their second one, the title gives away the game. “Marky Move” sounds like something Rough Trade would’ve issued in 1981, its blurt of horn-powered post-punk funkitude sounding like an homage to Essential Logic or Pigbag. Some F&G members would go on to form Parquet Courts, but the work they did in this band deserves just as much attention.
Le Loup, “Forgive Me” (from 2009’s Family). An outlier in the Hardly Art discography, Le Loup’s Family is a cosmically inclined, world-music-inflected gem that bears some similarities with Prince Rama’s Shadow Temple. “Forgive Me” is the most crystallized distillation of their spiritual global pop. Often when Westerners attempt this sort of thing, the results cloy like crazy. But Le Loup achieve an ideal balance of reverence and idiosyncrasy on this feel-good, campfire ditty.
Gold Leaves, “Endless Dope” (from 2011’s The Ornament). Gold Leaves auteur Grant Olsen here channels godly downcast troubadour Lee Hazlewood on this dimly sparkling, loping waltz. If you channel the golden-hued melancholy of Lee Hazlewood in this godforsaken decade, I’m going to champion you hard.
Hardly Released: Bedroom Recordings, Demos, Rarities, Unreleased, and Widely Ignored Material
June 2, 2017
01. Hunx & His Punx - "Baby of the Band" [stream]
02. Colleen Green - "Oh Baby"
03. Protomartyr - "580 Memories"
04. La Luz - "Believe My Eyes"
05. Chastity Belt - "Dull"
06. Gazebos - "Tapper"
07. Grave Babies - "Kill Me"
08. IAN SWEET - "Bug Museum"
09. Hausu - "The Haze"
10. The Dutchess & the Duke - "I Steal You (Demo)"
11. Jenn Champion - "Someone New"
12. Seapony - "Punk Song (Demo)"
13. Shannon and the Clams - "Mines of Io"
14. The Moondoggies - "Roll Away"
15. Jacuzzi Boys - "Fake Flowers"
16. Arthur & Yu - "Pilot's Out"
17. Fergus & Geronimo - "Powerful Lovin' (Live)"