A Room Of One's Own: How Household's 'Items' Confronts The Limits Of Domesticity
Since publishing our original Turning the Tables list six months ago, we've grown the canon it established — one always meant to be open and adjustable — by publishing 39 essays on albums by women who either came before the time period the original list encompassed, or didn't make the original cut. The point of the Forebears and Shocking Omissions series was to show that a feminist canon is always flexible because its makers are aware of their own limitations and ready to hear others' points of view.
This process of remaking the original list could go on forever, and we hope it does, among listeners debating, celebrating, stumping for their musical loves. Meanwhile, Turning the Tables now enters a new stage with longer features about women creating and sharing albums: behind the soundboard at the recording studio, in the trenches touring and building community, and in the private spaces where an artist's self-expression becomes a listener's lifeline. Some features will explore recordings that made the original Turning the Tables list. Other will go beyond it. It's all part of the story that expands every time a woman sings her truth or plays her freedom.
In life and in art, women are often confined to interior spaces. Containment, both figurative and literal, has been explored in literature, film and the visual arts by female artists from Virginia Woolf and Kate Chopin to Cindy Sherman and Kara Walker. In Chantal Akerman's 1975 arthouse classic Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, the film's protagonist leads a strictly regimented life within the confines of her meticulous apartment. "I wanted a life of my own," she tells her son, explaining why she ultimately decided to marry. Later, the orderly space becomes the setting for something far more sinister.
In an email exchange about her former band Household, Talya Cooper referred to Jeanne Dielman as a "masterpiece." "It does exactly what I was trying to do in Household," she explained. "Express the monotony of a daily routine with an undercurrent of bubbling, righteous anger."
Household released its debut record, Items, in 2011, the same year I graduated college and began integrating myself into Brooklyn's D.I.Y. music scene. It was also around the same time the press started to declare that rock music — particularly in New York — was in desperate need of saving. Each night, as artful noise surrounded me in various spaces across Bushwick and Williamsburg, I came home to read that "guitar music" was dead. Soon, the burden of revival was placed squarely on the shoulders of several popular all-male bands; all the while, Talya Cooper was holed away, making something incredible in a room all her own.
"I wrote most of the record in a friend's practice space after a breakup, huddled up with my own self-pity and my guitar and some Tecates," she revealed to me. "I was in my mid-20s and lived in the haze of a very bad depression that I hadn't yet learned how to treat... [Items] expressed something between a shrug and a seething, a way to talk about how frustrated I felt in as few words and with as few notes as possible." To complete Household, Cooper enlisted a former coworker, drummer Jenna Weiss-Berman, and later bassist Isabel Freeman, who "helped reshape what [she'd] written into neatly formed, actually structured songs."
Those neat structures compose Items, an extremely punk eighteen minutes of sharp, precise minimalism. When I first heard it, its simplicity struck me in a way that few records had; I've loved the clean lines of post-punk since I was a teenager, but its clarity and candor felt singularly authentic. Most importantly, though, Items is a record made by women, for women. Across nine fleeting tracks, Cooper spins a distinctly feminine tale of disappointment and disillusionment, framed elegantly against the monotonous backdrop of domestic life. Like any great punk record, Items was born out of heartbreak, but above all, it's an impossibly smart assessment of time, space and the gender roles that define us.
A dark fairytale of sorts, Items commences inside an immediately chaotic interior. "You keep your door shut tight so no one finds out where you hide," Cooper mocks on opener "Go Away." A track later on the shuffling "Never After," she laments the setting of "a house on a hillside" until ultimately declaring, defeated: "I'll save you, you won't save me / This is how it's gonna be." When the scene shifts to "Wave Goodbye," things spiral even further downward; opening with a trim, prickly guitar riff, Weiss-Berman's methodical drum beat builds a vortex of confusion against which Cooper describes a tedious routine of watering plants and preparing a meal "of things that have died."
In picking apart the minute details of everyday life, Items illuminates the points at which the personal and political aspects of femininity intersect; the topics of "power and authority" are debated on "Never After," while the moody "Desperate Times" finds Cooper protesting that her "heart does not cost what you think you should pay." In addition to cold, distant imagery, the songs utilize plenty of symbolism (the feminine sun and masculine moon in "Phases") and inject welcome doses of humor (the cheeky repetition of "Why Baby") to emphasize their intention. In our exchange, Cooper underlined the importance of Items having "almost no distortion, ornamentation or effects," which its sleek cover art (lifted by Freeman from a vintage design magazine) reflects.
Items reaches an epic climax on "Cold Hands," the only track on the record to surpass three minutes. It begins calmly, but carefully grows more menacing. "I thought when you left me, you'd have something more to say," Cooper mourns, her delicate voice remaining steady. Slowly, Freeman's warm, cradling bassline intensifies, until all instruments accelerate and Weiss-Berman shrieks, "You've got the coldest hands anyway!" In true Household fashion, "Cold Hands" is slick and well-measured but hints towards utter chaos; it represents the invasion of space (both a home and a body) that occurs inside a private relationship, and the feelings of betrayal that remain when it ends. At the time, these sounds and images burrowed themselves deep inside me, and crept up again later when I experienced my own heartbreak and, eventually, started my own band out of my own righteous anger.
Household released one more record, Elaines, in 2013, then disbanded in 2014 when Freeman moved to London. Just before their breakup, the band opened for Parquet Courts in the now-defunct Bushwick sweat lodge The Acheron. It was the first time I saw Household live. These were the first musicians I'd seen that played in a style I could relate to and wanted to emulate — and they were doing it right in front of me. Unlike many other Brooklyn bands, who eventually attracted large audiences online, Household never strayed far from its small community of fellow women, or as Cooper phrased it, "this corner of punk-lady Tumblr that probably doesn't exist anymore."
"At the time it was all these women in their late teens and early 20s reblogging each other's bands and tracks by Malaria! and Look Blue Go Purple," she recalled. "Of course there was drama, but there was also space to support and elevate each other's' work [and] complain about when men fool around with your amp settings while you're playing." As their male contemporaries gained national attention and landed magazine covers, Household (along with other female-led bands like Amanda X and Aye Nako) kept camaraderie with a small, queer underground scene that "embraced, supported and encouraged" them. Theirs was the same scene that made me feel like if they could do it, then perhaps I could do it, too.
I was at the band's final show at Baby's All Right that spring, just about a month before I picked up a bass for the first time. Now, several years after rock music was supposed to have "died," a new generation of women musicians — many of whom first cut their teeth in the same scene as Household — are finally getting the praise they deserve, and then some. As happens every so often, music journalists are writing with surprise about a purported flood of talented new women musicians. But Cooper, who's since worked on various music projects (including the hardcore band In School), isn't buying it.
"Obviously I support this new generation of young women making music and building community with each other," she told me, "[but] I have no interest in a hackneyed narrative that describes women making good guitar music as new or novel and I certainly don't make my own music for anyone who thinks that's the case.
"Women have always made the best rock music in no small part because so often we do it together for each other, in our own spaces, and tell our own stories about it," Cooper said, highlighting the real reason any woman begins making art in the first place: to create a life of her own.
Loren DiBlasi is a writer and musician from New York. Her work has appeared in MTV News, Vulture, Consequence of Sound and Paste Magazine, and she is the bassist of Brooklyn post-punk band Patio.
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