The album cover for NYC-based performance artist Marla Mase’s Speak Deluxe tells you everything you need to know about what’s in store for the listener.
What lies beneath that stoic, I-Am-Woman portrait is the type of primordial feminism we just don’t see a great deal in popular music anymore.
Sure, a lot of mainstream sensations talk about how they want to be role models for young women, but how many actually deliver beyond the requisite lip service? How many are willing to lunge themselves into the muck and write songs that are as polarizing as they are poetic?
Mase strives to do just that on her latest release, and, for the most part, fares well despite some tracks not striking me the way I initially thought they would.
The opener, Scream, appears to invite the listener into Mase’s world through a lyric revolving around a woman being abused in some way, because the lamentation over the fact that she never screamed for help cuts right through the track’s otherwise modest melody. For better or worse, it’s evident right from the start that words take precedent here, so her backing band isn’t asked to keep anything besides a serviceable beat.
That all changes on Piece of Peace and Queen of Imperfection, two optimistic assaults aimed at inequality and deconstructing the notion of beauty as somehow a product of establishment predilections. The band lets loose while Mase channels her inner Kathleen Hanna, albeit less anarchically, to create enough crushing noise to suggest she’s absorbed plenty of Riot grrrl sentiments throughout her time on this planet.
Had Mase veered further in this direction on the rest of the record, I wouldn’t have hesitated to cast her as a modern-day Patti Smith given how well she can meld musicality with down-and-dirty slam poetry at times.
Instead, she spends the next few songs reveling in spoken word theatrics that don’t carry as much weight away from the stage.
Lioness finds her seizing control of the feminine mystique with literally roaring consequence atop a jungle rhythm straight out of an evening at Penny’s Open Mic in NYC, which is probably where it should have stayed. It’s a powerful piece, but, unless, you’re someone who craves all things avant-garde, I can’t envision it holding your attention for very long.
Divine Restlessness is an experimental exercise that showcases Mase’s potential for vocal splendor and Kill Love exudes a ‘50s balladeer vibe even though she’s allowing her post-breakup acrimony to dominate the song’s content. Regardless of how bleak her outlook on love is, we believe her, and ultimately want to keep listening to see if things get brighter.
The sky does clear up, but not in the way you might expect.
AnnaRexia has become one of her most popular songs due to the Dubmix, but, while I adore the fearlessness, I don’t think dealing with the serious nature of an eating disorder in this way was the best road to travel. While plenty of artists have dealt with sobering topics via uplifting ditties before, the reggae style present just didn’t do it for me.
Dance the Tango and Smithereens are compositions that fit snugly among the performance art backdrop she’s assembled, which is clearly where her true calling lies. She’s a compelling thinker whose capacity for intellectualism resonates more often than the music.
With its spirited refrain of “I wanna shut this shit down,” Mase could easily be using Squirm as a vehicle for her disgust with the economy, government or any number of societal institutions responsible for putting the United States on the brink of collapse. It’s the kind of decisive rabblerousing that Rage Against the Machine awakened in the early ‘90s and exactly what Mase should adhere to in the future if she wants to elevate herself to laureate status.
She’ll undoubtedly elicit comparisons to Patti Smith, P.J. Harvey, and even Iggy Pop once Speak Deluxe begins to make the rounds, and she certainly deserves credit for refashioning old themes into a style all her own.
Like fellow Knitting Factory regular Shilpa Ray, she incorporates activism, feminism, and unbridled sexuality to deliver an experience destined to frighten mainstream America. I’ve seen Ray live before and she’s no joke, so I’m inclined to believe that Mase’s material would produce the same effect.
Perhaps she has a Horses-like album in her somewhere, but she’s not quite there yet.