The New Releases Shelf — To Love is To Live

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Back in my college radio days, when I moved with a music-nerd crew that devoted our collective brain power to sussing every mystery of the artists we loved when there was no superhighway continually exiting information to us, one of the pastimes was guessing when various band members would spin off into solo endeavors. I remember once sitting in the studio, playing a track off of the then-new ‘Til Tuesday album Everything’s Different Now, and asking one of my cohorts how many more records he thought the band had in them before Aimee Mann decided to do her own thing. He simply held up his hand, fingers curled to resemble a zero.

I felt that same certainty that I was encountering a performer who’d quickly outgrown the band she stood in front of when I saw Savages play live, touring in support of their 2016 album, Adore Life. The personality Jehnny Beth brought to songs on the two Savages albums was formidable enough, but she was ferociously charismatic on stage. She couldn’t been more clearly a star if the International Astronomical Union had given her a name and number. There was little shock when the band announced plans to “take a break.” The only mild surprise is that it’s taken this long for Beth to get to her first official full-length solo outing.

To Love is To Live has some of the thrilling dark churn that typified the Savages’ albums, but it spins down radically different avenues. Beth was reportedly inspired to creative action in part by the passing of David Bowie shortly after the release of his monumental Blackstar, and her album wears some of that great work’s warped-jazz cloaks. The more simple and direct post-punk of Savages is still there, providing a spindly spine, but Beth and her collaborators (including Flood and Atticus Ross) load on jagged art rock. “Flower,” a love song between two women, is maybe the most emblematic track, swirling and surging in its post-Eurythmics pop deconstruction.

The album is imperfect in its explorations, sometimes employing distorted vocals and other studio effects to little impact beyond noticing their presence. More often, its enjoyable to hear Beth veer from the brusque death disco “Innocence” to the punk clamor and clatter of “I’m the Man” to the stark piano ballad “The Rooms,” never giving the barest indication that she’s uncertain traversing any of these sonic planes. At times, Beth signals that she’s developing toward true mastery, as on “French Countryside,” which finally answers the question of what Everything But the Girl would have sounded like had they added some soulfulness to their pristine pop elegance.

Savages might get together to make another album. They may continue on and have a long, extraordinary career together. If not, there will likely be plenty of Jehnny Beth requests, and To Love is To Live suggest that will be more-than-adequate compensation.

The New Releases Shelf —Sideways to New Italy

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When I fell for Hope Downs, the debut full-length from Australian band Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, it was because I heard the college radio of my own personal era in the earnest, tuneful stylings. It wasn’t true retro, reliant on nostalgia in place of originality. Instead, the band drew on predecessors but placed themselves firmly in the now on the out-of-the-mainstream rock continuum of college to modern to alternative to indie. That I heard the bygone jangle and wistfulness of the late–nineteen-eighties in the album’s skillful songs made the album mighty difficult to resist.

For the band’s follow-up, Sideways to New Italy, it feels to me like they move ahead a few year with their baseline influences, as if embarking on the second leg in of a time travel tour of what dudes with guitars and an aw-shucks eschewing of pop slickness can come up with. “Falling Thunder” is like a peppier Death Cab for Cutie, and “The Cool Change” reminds me of something Wilco might have put on a mythical record between Being There and Summerteeth. “The Only One” has the easy charm of drifty, dreamy Britpop bands of roughly the same era, the lads who listened to the Go-Betweens and the Housemartins in their teenage bedrooms and thought they could give it a go, too, but landed on the endearingly basic version of the same music.

If Sideways to New Italy doesn’t offer quite the same surge of excitement as its predecessor, it’s still clearly the product of a smart, sharp band. “Cars in Space” has a racing energy to it, and “Cameo” is full to bursting. Al the elements come together in songs that are chunky and satisfying. For obvious reason, there’s a particular metaphor that’s primarily applied to flatly enjoyable movies that aren’t particularly demanding. But I think it’s fair to say that Sideways to New Italy is a popcorn album. 

The New Releases Shelf — Fetch the Bolt Cutters

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Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a deafening thunderclap of album. The music’s not loud, but the sentiments roar. There’s too much life in Apple’s art to think of the album as a culmination, but it feels like an entirely career funneled into a single work. Welling ferocity in her words, intense vocal performances, and spectacularly inventive music have long been indelible components of Apple’s cultural contributions, and she already has incredible albums to her name. Somehow, Apple goes to an even higher level with this new collection of songs. Opening track “I Want You to Love Me” starts with a jazzy shuffle and a cascading piano part, then takes a discombobulating number of sharp left turns throughout before ending with Apple engaging in a kind of stridently challenging dolphin-speak cathartic singing. It’s the equivalent of a jutted-forward chin, daring anyone — any hapless fool — to tell her she’s wrong. Just try it.

Expectations firmly set for spectacular daring, Apple charges ahead, swinging a wrecking ball around her head like a lariat. She fearlessly reports the indignities she’s faced across her lifetime, mostly evidence of patriarchal manipulation and oppression. “I grew up in the shoes they told me I could fill/ When they came around, I would stand real still,” she sings on the title cut, later adding “I grew up in the shoes they told me I could fill/ Shoes that were not made for running up that hill/ And I need to run up that hill/ I need to run up that hill/ I will, I will, I will, I will, I will.” Apple uses repetition to underline the accuracy of her recollections and also to make a steely mantra out of her statements of demanded freedom.

On the fevered “Under the Table,” she takes the fury she feels at being silenced by a romantic partner at a social event and transforms it into rhythmic liberation: “If you get me to go and I open my mouth/ To the fucking mutton that they’re talking about/ You can pout, but don’t you/ Don’t you, don’t you, don’t you/ Don’t you shush me.” Apple finds solidarity with a fellow wronged woman on “Newspaper” and then the next track, “Ladies,” makes the call for sisterhood even more explicit. “For Her” is about putting the right name to crimes and not letting the perpetrators cling to their feelings of their own innocence (“Well, good morning, good morning/ You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in”).

And on and on. I could try to crack open the meaning of every song, recounting the elaborate musical dynamics conjured up by Apple, and never get at the splendid weight of it all. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is enveloping and comprehensive. It is mind-spinning and soul-rattling. It is high art from a woman who has taught herself to be a gutter brawler because it is necessary to her survival. I’ve never heard anything quite like it, and I’ve rarely encountered an album that is so immediately arresting. Deliver the chain-cutting tool to Apple if you like. Best as I can tell, she’s already free.

The New Releases Shelf — Saint Cloud

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Waxahatchee wasn’t a new act when the album Ivy Tripp was released, in 2015. Katie Crutchfield had been slinging tunes under that name for a few years and had a couple prior full-lengths. But Ivy Tripp felt major and new, even as it called back to the thick alternative rock of the mid–nineteen-nineties, when buzzy guitars were applied to lithe pop hooks. On her next album, Out in the Storm, Crutchfield took the sound and expanded it, filling in the expanded footprint with sonic complexities. Tracks felt like they could go just about anywhere, long tethers keeping them bound to Crutchfield’s fierce spirit.

Having mastered and compellingly updated a certain sound of a couple decades past, Waxahatchee takes a turn on the new album Saint Cloud, roaring down the gravel road of cunning Americana rock, of the sort that was once wincingly dubbed y’allternative. There’s a little Wilco, a little Jayhawks, and whole lotta vintage Lucinda Williams to the songs on Saint Cloud, but with a tight, crisp wrapping of Crutchfield’s finely considered sensibility. “Can’t Do Much” has easygoing, back-porch-rocker charm, and “Fire” is intricate and spare, Crutchfield’s voice twanging like a taut wire. “Oxbow” achingly deliberate, with Cat Power’s trick of employing a jabbing cadence on the vocals.

Crutchfield has been upfront about this album representing a personal turning point, as it’s the first she’s made after deciding she needed to give up drinking. The act of self-redefinition shades the whole album, and sometimes comes out overtly, always packing a wallop. On “Arkadelphia,” Crutchfield sings, “If I burn out like a light bulb/ They’ll say ‘She wasn’t meant for that life’/ They’ll put it all in a capsule and save it for a dark night” and the candor is almost jarring. I don’t think Crutchfield has been particularly reticent previously (Out of the Storm is an emotional powerhouse), but Saint Cloud draws the honesty from a rawer place and in doing so starts to find a kind of grace in stiff-shouldered expression. And through that grace is a potential passageway out of the darkness. The practically perfect “Lilacs” lays it out with jagged truth: “I run it like the crop of kismet/ I run it like a dilettante/ I run it like I’m happy, baby/ Like I got everything I want.” Crutchfield is getting there, and she’s making a marvelous soundtrack of her memoir of learning to be.

The New Releases Shelf — Miss Anthropocene

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Although it’s hardly a new debate, recent years have seen an uptick in snappish back and forth about the wisdom of separating artists from the art they create. Primarily driven, of course, by the near-constant lifting of heavy rocks to reveal the wormlike behavior of entitled men underneath, the current discourse feels like a morass of unsettling uncertainty when it comes to the question of whether, say, Annie Hall can still be comfortably viewed without thinking about the insidious accusations hurled at its prominent creator. But there’s another version of the modern dilemma, driven by the open-book qualities of artists’ lives, the phone in their back pocket a conduit to impulsive sharing of thoughts that suggest a different version of the idealized soul listeners, viewers, and readers create in meeting the creations. Do the artists’ assortments of perceived transgressions against our faith in them then turn into a projection onto their art?

All of the above is the longer method of conceding that I’m not sure I can trust my impression that Miss Anthropocene, the new album from Grimes, is accomplished but hampered by insularity. The ethereal melodies bucked up with barbed electropop struts are unmistakably her handiwork, the line firmly drawn from vibrant predecessors Visions and Art Angels. The layers of sound turn into interweaving bands and then back into thick slabs, seemingly in the time it takes for a meditation-suited deep breath in and out. And her capacity for lush, head-spinning invention emerges throughout the album. As an example, “4ÆM” is propulsive and rhythmic, like the soundtrack to a Bollywood dance number in a Philip K. Dick fever dream. No one but Grimes can pull off that sort of blistering creativity presented with tight control.

But Grimes’s meticulous nature shows its first signs of going adrift on Miss Anthropocene, with genuine threats of stultifying mechanics. “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth” is like a fully digitized Kate Bush disappearing drowsily into herself, and “My Name is Dark” sounds like “Kill V. Maim,” the powerhouse track from Art Angels, taken through the Garbage filter, though I concede that comparison comes to mind in part because of the recurring line “You stupid girl.” There’s even a clunkiness to her sideways tributes to comic book creator Jack Kirby, with tracks “Darkseid” and “New Gods” taking their titles after elements of his career-pinnacle Fourth World saga. If Grimes drew inspiration for the songs in any deeper way than borrowing the cool names, it’s basically indiscernible.

Arguably, Grimes is best on this album when she’s keeping the songs a little leaner, built on distinctive pieces, like the almost Petty-ish acoustic guitar riff of “Delete Forever.” The other end of the continuum is “Before the fever,” which is a bunch of sonic ideas smeared together into a globby mess, like Zola Jesus without a capacity for shrewd editing. And I have difficulty listening to that misfiring track without thinking of the distance Grimes has traveled from the scrappy original of just a few years back, posting rough videos shot in cramped rooms as part of impromptu music releases. I have my doubts — and personal prejudices that drive those doubts, it should be noted — as to whether curling up with a knucklehead billionaire and tweeting anti-union vitriol fosters an environment similarly fruitful for creativity.

At her previous peaks, I was convinced Grimes was laying the paving stones that led to the future of pop music. Miss Anthropocene might still be crafted with obvious skill, but the trailblazing quality of her art is dissipating. Any hint of expansive outreach is a whispery ghost, and its starting to feel like Grimes is making music behind too many heavily secured, foot-thick doors.

The New Releases Shelf — Likewise

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The first time Frances Quinlan released recorded music for the listening pleasure of a larger community, she did so under the guise of a band. I suppose the curious might have considered the moniker Hop Along, Queen Ansleis to belong to an individual, especially since the material had the straight-from-the-bedroom quality so prevalent among indie popsters in first decade of the century. But then the name was shortened to Hop Along and did become a band proper, with a lineup that included her brother Mark. Three albums were issued, to increasing adoration. Now, Quinlan is back to working through her art largely on her own, and she’s stamped her own name on the result, big and bold. Officially, Likewise is her solo debut.

And it’s a gleaming gem of a debut, at that. Quinlan’s songwriting is crisp and clear, her voice prominent. She signals her vulnerability with the very feel of the record. It comes across as no small matter, no random choice, that the album belongs solely to her by billing. The lyrics keep coming back to the idea of gradually opening up to another person, to allowing them to see a clearer version of the previously hidden self. On the flitting, lovely, and smart “Your Reply,” Quinlan alternates between poignantly clear and slyly cryptic, in each mode able to slip out perfectly crafted lyrics such as “Somebody wrote ‘tender’ in the novel’s margins/ As if to remind about a precious force.” “A Secret” is lean and forceful, and similarly disarming in its offhand eloquence (“It’s been a long time/ Since we argued/ And that argument ended/ You walk in and out of pain like a tide”).

Quinlan makes songs that are delicate and bustling at the same time. “Rare Thing,” with its blipping, racing background and crystalline pop styling, sounds like Robyn producing the Cardigans. And a cover of Built to Spill’s “Carry the Zero” is a full-on transformation of the song, maintaining its bulldozer authority while exposing a lighter soul. As if preemptively countering any dismissal Likewise as a precious, fragile thing, Quinlan includes “Went to LA,” which closes with her yelling herself raw, as ruthless to her own being as Polly Jean Harvey at her rawest. Just because music is precise, Quinlan seems to be reminding the listener, doesn’t mean it can’t be tough. And just because it’s taken some time for someone to sign her name prominently to her art doesn’t mean she hasn’t been revealing herself, kindly and graciously, all along.

The New Releases Shelf — Sing in a World That’s Falling Apart

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Thinking about the history of the Black Lips, it was probably always just a matter of time before the band flicked their hair grease onto some corn pone. Specialists in raucous, retro rock ‘n’ roll as raw as fingertips ravaged by a long night of assaulting steel strings, the band out of Atlanta turns to a different sort of musical excavation on their new album, Sing in a World That’s Falling Apart. They delve into an old school country music sound on the album, swirling in twang and drawl to their usual brand of especially oily garage rock. If Elvis Presley had run with his county influence instead of his R&B influence and the subsequent evolution of pop had proceeded accordingly, this new Black Lips material would have been the sound of proper rebellion, circa 1968.

The material on Sing in a World That’s Falling Apart calls to mind all sorts of infinite-universe comparisons. “Gentleman” is the kind of thing Kris Kristofferson would have kicked out if he operated with a crude sense of humor (“This ol’ middle finger/ Has grown fat and tired from flicking the bird”), and “Get It On Time” is the sound of a Bob Dylan who never stopped making music in that West Saugerties, the Band eternally behind him like cursed figures in a fairy tale. And the Kinks-like “Angola Rodeo” is proof that the Black Lips are only going to stray so far from their base instincts, no matter what experimental mandate they’ve adopted.

Enjoyable as the album often is, Sing in a World That’s Falling Apart sometimes comes across as a little too much of a pose, recalling the theme park honky-tonk hollowness that often infested the output of preceding practitioners of this sort of sound, such as Southern Culture on the Skids or the Reverend Horton Heat. The tighter the Black Lips get, the more the tracks take on a tinge of fabrication, which is basically the opposite of their more rock-oriented records. The album burbles irresistibly when looseness is the prevailing vibe, as on “Dishonest Men,” which couples nineteen-fifties sci-fi sounds with a little surf rock ease, and “Live Fast Die Slow,” a boozy singalong built to be the last number slipped in before closing time. In a world that does indeed feel like it’s falling part, it’s the rattletrap version of the Black Lips aesthetic that feels most right and true.

The New Releases Shelf — Magdalene

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For her sophomore full-length release, FKA twigs strips her music down to a fragile, spindly framework. Five years after the English musician delivered the mind-spinning debut LP1, she offers Magdalene, which retains the sense of relentless innovation and pushes further into elegant abstraction. A fleet of producers pitches in on the album, but twigs mostly credits noted experimental artist Nicolas Jaar with helping her find the creative direction for the album. There’s a clear kinship to Jaar’s airy, spare electronica in the way twigs makes the material as bare and raw as knees dragged across jagged asphalt, but there’s no doubt that the vision is purely, decisively the property of twigs.

The album’s title is a thesis of empowerment, reaching back to one of the first women who suffered the indignity of being diminished, portrayed as less than she was. On the track “Mary Magdalene”, twigs sings, “A woman’s work/ A woman’s prerogative/ A woman’s time to embrace/ She must put herself first.” It’s not just that first line, echoing a famous song by Kate Bush, that recalls the iconoclastic predecessor of precise, aching pop. There’s an unyielding emotion to twigs’s music, especially her singing. Every keening, twisting, or splintering note feels like it is calibrated for maximum impact.

Every track is a discovery, and new elements keep emerging. “Sad Day” has sputtering beats that are like the rolling streams between languorous pop oases, and “Thousand Eyes” is a zinging, buzzing act of constant escalation. “Fallen Alien” hints at what might happen if Fiona Apple rode her sensibility through a machine that projects M.I.A. into the soul. But, again, these comparisons are naturally strained, inadequate. They distract from the truth of twigs’s striking originality. She shapes otherworldly music and knows exactly how to place herself within it to maximize her impact. On “Holy Terrain,” her mellifluous vocals contrast with the shivery rap of Future. And the quietly majestic “Cellophane” is exquisite, like it’s cracking open a portal to a better pop universe.

And twigs is always powerfully present, spreading vivid feeling across artful, slightly cryptic lyrics that hint at pain and possibility at once. For other performers, material like that found on Magdalene can be distancing, feeling so refined it’s as if the blood has been drained out of it. The question of twigs changes that equation. She is too alive to possibility, crackling with icy charm. More than anything else, her vulnerability is so plainly, poignantly on display. One things for certain about twigs: She’s not hiding.

The New Releases Shelf — All Mirrors

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I don’t believe there’s another current performer who’s simultaneously otherworldly and vehemently down-to-earth in quite the same way as Angel Olsen. Part of the equation is fairly easy to work out. Olsen specializes in melding spare, airy music with words that are emotional haymakers. Even when the lyrics are somewhat oblique, there’s a clear underlying feeling that makes them real as scars. All Mirrors, Olsen’s fourth full-length studio album, carries all of these qualities while adding new dynamics that don’t jolt the listener but instead amass in the subconscious. It’s reminiscent of the mid-career reinventions of Polly Jean Harvey, but executed with greater stealth.

Olsen’s advance single “Lark” properly foretold the album’s magisterial drive. Vivacious in its complexity, the song undulates and cascades. It almost melts into itself. The same can be said of “Too Easy,” which is almost dreamy enough to be a Beach House song. “Impasse” sounds like Olsen is raising a tempest through sheer force of songcraft. Other times, Olsen pulls back, letting a song proceed with measured precision. “Spring” flutters like a tapestry caught in the wind, but it’s also clear that every ripple of its fabric is deeply considered. The obvious care adds weight to the lyrics: “Days that keep slipping/ Our lives that I’m missing/ I wish it were true love/ I wish we were kissing.”

As the album edges to the end, the music generally grows sparer, icier (the exception is “Summer,” which evokes the spooky seduction of Bats for Lashes). It builds purposefully to the album closer “Chance.” coming after a string of especially forlorn songs, the cut is breathtaking in both its wounds and its firm insistence on questing toward personal peace and maybe even redemption (“I’m leaving once again/ Makin’ my own plan/ I’m not looking for the answer/ Or anything that lasts”). To the degree that any album — any great album, anyway — is an argument delivered by the artist, “Chance” is a firm restatement of a running thesis. The uncertainty of simply being never goes away, and the best anyone can do is grab for whatever truths they can get in a moment, any moment. Thankfully, Olsen keeps taking her handfuls of truth and putting them, in every way, on record.

The New Releases Shelf — Norman Fucking Rockwell

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Cat Power convinced me I might be wrong, or maybe just short-sighted. In the past, I’ve enjoyed certain songs from Lana Del Rey (usually the expected culprits), but I didn’t consider her an artist of real significance, someone who demanded ongoing attention. I discerned a vague novelty to her music, a disposability that caused me to shift her aside in my ongoing, largely futile quest to stay caught up with the new and weighty. Then Cat Power recruited Del Rey to share vocals on the song “Woman,” from the sterling 2018 album Wanderer. Whether I was convinced by the stamp of validation, a transference or fannish goodwill, or simply jarred into newfound alertness by the quality of the song — which fittingly offer a direct repudiation the tendency to dismiss women — I heard Del Rey again, with a bolstered level of appreciate, finding her layered vocals lent added profundity to an already fierce and powerful song. I wanted to hear more.

Norman Fucking Rockwell, Del Rey’s latest album, is definitely more. “Goddamn, man child/ You fucked me so good that I almost said, ‘I love you,'” Del Rey intones on the album-opening title cut, against spare and intricate music, positioning herself as a post-postmodern Liz Phair, willing to dispense her innermost feelings with a profane bluntness sure to set the more timid atremble. The album calls to mind all sorts of other female artists who are either her predecessors, contemporaries, or followers, such as Fiona Apple and Billie Eilish. But the careful melodies, emotionally evocative singing, and casually lush orchestrations set my mind wandering to other comparisons, finally settling on the idea that Del Rey comes across like Burt Bacharach as a bleakly disillusioned millennial woman. The Brill Building is reassembled, with a foundation constructed of the leftover rubble from masculine walls shattered by a sharp, disappointed gaze.

Lyrically, the album keeps circling back to the same themes and terms, as if Del Rey’s preoccupations forcefully assert themselves amidst any attempts at hard barrier variety from song to song. In the indie pop gem “Mariners Apartment Complex,” Del Rey sings, “And who I’ve been is with you on these beaches/ Your Venice bitch, your die-hard, your weakness,” and then the very next track is a nine and a half minute epic titled “Venice Bitch,” an immediate answer to her own vulnerable revelations. Del Rey repeatedly comes back to broad concepts of America and its national identity, and keeps singing about parties and dancing with a marked lack of most modern pop’s boosterish enthusiasms. Instead, when Del Rey breathily recounts shuffling through a lifestyle of constant celebration, she sounds like an exhausted ghost. There may be no better reflection of the indifference to the party lifestyle that comes with scalded maturity.

Mostly, the subject of Norman Fucking Rockwell seems to be Del Rey’s mixed emotions at her place on the cultural firmament, past the point of a pedestal-placed ingenue du jour and figuring out how to surf past the backlash. “They mistook my kindness for weakness/ I fucked up, I know that, but Jesus/ Can’t a girl just do the best she can?” she sings on “Mariners Apartment Complex,” and it reverberates like a freeing thesis of casting aside unjust, unkind criticism. Del Rey claims anything and everything for herself, treading bravely with assurance that she has as much right to the romp across the landscape of musical legacy as anyone. “Summertime,” from Porgy and Bess, is repurposed into the languid chorus of Doin’ Time,” ready-made for the point at the outer borough block party when the first glimmers of dawn prompt all-night reveler to rub their eyes and internally second-guess the ragged choices of the evening. 

The album closes with “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have – But I Have It,” which is loose enough to be saddled with a couple clunky couplets (“Hello, its the most famous woman you know on the iPad/ Calling from beyond the grave, I just wanna say, ‘Hi, Dad'”), but is mostly quietly ingenious. Against a tender piano backing, Del Rey cracks open a version of herself that is reckless and wild (“I’ve been tearing up town in my fucking white gown/ Like a goddamn near sociopath”) while also declaring a welling inner strength (“They write that I’m happy, they know that I’m not/ But at best, you can see I’m not sad”). Whatever questions I had about Del Rey are all but settled, because Norman Fucking Rockwell is a rattling, resonant answer. She is marking out her territory, one sharpened stake at a time.