Bikini Kill/Le Tigre
Reviewed on this page:
The C.D. Version Of The First Two
Records - Pussy Whipped - The Singles - Reject All American -
Julie Ruin - Frumpies One-Piece - Le Tigre - Feminist Sweepstakes -
Those lovable moppets, with their relaxing, uplifting songs of joy and
tenderness... Coming out of Olympia at the beginning of the 90s, Bikini Kill was a straight-up punk band that made
Valerie Solanos look like a Stepford wife, with ferocious songs that put the raw emotion back in agitrock.
They're so tough they had a boy (Billy Karren) in the band without compromising their feminist approach.
After serving as posterchildren for the Riot Grrrl movement and inspiring countless bands (notably including Sleater-Kinney), the band split up in early 1998; singer Kathleen Hanna reincarnated
herself as Julie Ruin, and then formed the lo-fi electronica band Le Tigre, while the other three members have continued
their other band, the Frumpies.
There used to be some great BK and Julie Ruin pages, but I don't know where any of them are anymore.
The Kill Rock Stars site has news, information and good links on all the BK
members' various bands.
Kathleen Hanna, vocals; Kathi Wilcox, bass; Tobi Vail,
drums; Billy Karren, guitar.
The C.D. Version Of The First Two Records (rec. 1991-1992, rel. 1994)
Like the title says, this is a compilation of their
first two EPs, including the disturbingly ambiguous incest anthem "Suck
My Left One," the seedy "Carnival," and a whole slew of other political
rants ("Liar," Don't Need You," "White Boy"). Plus the fabulous live
"Thurston Hearts The Who," which stacks sung vocals against spoken word
to make its point about acrimony and self-actualization in the rock
underground. The sound is raw (of course), but clear, the diction is
comprehensible, and the tunes are surprisingly musical (Vail's drumming
is particularly varied). As a bonus, the CD version includes lengthy
written pieces by band members about music journalism, punk and
political activism. The best value of the bunch, but once you start here you'll
probably want to collect 'em all. (DBW)
Pussy Whipped (1992)
This time, the music's barely listenable, with garage-level fidelity,
guitars so distorted you can't tell what chords they're playing, and
vocals screamed so that you can't make out the words without a lyric
sheet. The shame being that the lyrics are mostly terrific: visceral
("Star Bellied Boy"), incisive ("Li'l Red"), profoundly unsettling
("Alien She," "Sugar"). And that's only the songs I can figure out; god
knows what's happening in "Magnet" or "Hamster Baby." You either find
punk cathartic or you don't; if you do, and a line like "Why do I cry
every time that I cum?" does anything for you, snap this up.
The Singles (rec. 1993-95, rel. 1998)
A compilation of three 7" records cut between their two full-length albums, for a total of nine songs in seventeen
minutes. You'd have to be a fan to shell out much money for such a small quantity, but the quality is high. Three 1993 songs produced by and featuring Joan Jett are enjoyable hard rock ("Rebel Girl"), with nothing noticably
punk except Kathleen's voice and lyrics ("Your baseball bat words razormouth carves your initials bloody in my thigh").
The four-song Anti-Pleasure Dissertation is closer to the sound of the first two EPs, and the wonderful
self-recrimination "In Accordance To Natural Law" gets more across in 28 seconds than most bands can acheive in a whole
LP. The last single is moving toward the pop punk approach that became more evident on the following album: with its
surf guitars and dance beat, "I Hate Danger" sounds like the B-52's (really), while the
harder-edged "I Like Fucking" is perhaps the ultimate BK neo-feminist rant ("I believe in the radical
possibilities of pleasure, babe.") Aside from the Jett tunes, the songs were produced by John Goodmanson and the band.
Reject All American (1996)
Produced by Goodmanson again, and it's probably unfair to blame him for this
lackluster, mostly dull recording. Sure, the group's edge seems blunted
with mainstream-sounding ballads ("False Start," "For Only" - both sung
by Tobi), but the fast punk rockers also sound forced, as if Kathleen's
sure there's anger under there somewhere but she can't quite connect
with it ("No Backrub," title track). When you have to use "fucking" in
front of every noun to get across that you're pissed off ("R.I.P."),
you've already lost the battle, and some of the lyrics are shockingly
obvious ("It feels so good it must be wrong," from "Capri Pants"). A few
tracks measure up to the group's old standard - "Jet Ski," "Statement of
Vindication," the fascinating "Bloody Ice Cream" - so you needn't avoid
this if you're already a fan, but it's nothing to get excited about.
Julie Ruin (Julie Ruin: 1998)
Julie Ruin is sort of Kathleen Hanna's Buster Poindexter - an alter ego designed to distance her from her former
notoriety, while she records a different style of music than her fans are accustomed to. But rather than Poindexter's nightclub corn, Ruin's
applying a punk aesthetic to hip hop: programming the drum loops and playing the incidental instruments herself, sampling kitsch like
Foreigner's "I Want To Know What Love Is," and using the same lyrical style she used with BK rather than following rap conventions.
I wouldn't call it a successful experiment: without the catharsis provided by BK's caustic backing, Hanna/Ruin's semi-coherent confrontationalism
comes off as whiny rather than empowered ("Crochet," "V.G.I.," which stands for "Valley Girl Intelligensia"). As always, though, she comes up
with some finely wrought, searing lyrics ("I Wanna Know What Love Is"), there is some clever use of samples ("My Morning Is Summer"),
and when she drops the hip hop routine she can write a hell of a rock song ("Apt. #5").
Frumpies One-Piece (Frumpies: rec. 1992-1998, rel. 1999)
The Frumpies are Vail, Wilcox and Karren (all on guitar), plus Molly Neuman on drums. This 24-track CD compiles
tracks they'd cut over the years, apparently in one improvised take each. Punk's supposed to be offhand, rapid-fire, lo-fi, and hard to
listen to, but the Frumpies take that to an extreme, with a ruthless onslaught of tuneless, meaningless, sixty-second, interchangable "songs."
Full review coming soon.
Le Tigre (Le Tigre: 1999)
Initially Kathleen Hanna recruited videomaker Sadie Benning and fanzine writer Johanna Fateman to back up her Julie
Ruin tour, but then they decided to form a band. Theoretically it's electronic music made intentionally on out-of-date
equipment with a feminist garage/punk sensibility, but in practice there are a lot of guitars to be heard ("The The Empty"), and in places it's quite pop, with cotton-candy melodies reminiscent of 60s AM: "Deceptacon," "Phanta"
- anybody know why late 90s feminist bands had such affection for that genre (see Cadallaca and Free Kitten)?
The good side of that is, unlike BK, Le Tigre can be enjoyable even when the lyrics aren't particularly sharp ("Hot Topic," "Eau D'Bedroom Dancing"); the less good side is, they never build up the righteous fury to match their
political critique: the jokey groove is easy to take, but also easy to leave.
They do make use of the electronica form to dispense with ordinary song structure (the call and response "What's Yr Take On Cassavetes?," which opens with spoken word and seagulls mocking "Remember (Walking
In The Sand)"). A few instrumental tracks are contributed by Chris Stamey; the label is Durham, NC's own Mr Lady.
From The Desk Of Mr. Lady (Le Tigre: 2001)
A seven-song EP, with promising titles like "Get Off The Internet" and "Mediocrity Rules." (DBW)
Feminist Sweepstakes (Le Tigre: 2001)
JD Samson replaced Benning. Structurally very much like the group's debut, but not nearly as listenable: the politics are more jargony ("Tres Bien," "F.Y.R.") and the tunes aren't as much fun (the piano instrumental "Cry For Everything Bad That's Ever Happened").
There are certainly some satisfying moments - the ostinato piano vamp in "LT Tour Theme," the funk guitar groove of "Fake French," the organ loop in "Well Well Well" - just not as many.
The musique concrete "Dyke March 2001" is a low point, though I suppose if you've never been to a dyke march yourself you might learn something.
Engineered by Stamey (who also produced with the band), and the sound is a bit too clean: without the earlier DIY roughness, tunes like "Shred A" are too close to everyone else's electronica.
Guests include Brian Dennis (guitar, spoken vocal), Melissa York (drums on "Keep On Livin'"), Tammy Rae Carland and Dr. Vaginal Creme Davis (spoken vocals).
This Island (Le Tigre: 2004)
Their major label debut, on Universal. As the production values keep getting better, the group no longer sounds like a post-punk deconstruction of electronic dance music, they simply sound like bad electronic dance music: "After Dark" is exactly like Pink's hit "I'm Coming Up," only with crappy vocals, and the parade of third-hand hooks ("Nanny Nanny Boo Boo") and trite admonitions ("Don't Drink Poison") is wearisome in the extreme. The one cut I enjoy is the relatively low-key, low-fi "Tell You Now" - produced by Ric Ocasek - with Hanna sounding curiously like Deborah Harry.
There's not even much politics, aside from the dialectical "Viz" (with Gretchen Phillips on guitar), one
spoken word track recorded at an anti-war demonstration ("New Kicks"), and "Seconds," the obligatory don't-reelect-W rant (the 2004 equivalent of 1985's "Free Nelson Mandela" anthems).
The irrelevance maxes out on the annoying cover of the Pointer Sisters' "I'm So Excited" - whether you take it as sincere homage, tongue-in-cheek parody or radical reclaiming, you can't get around the fact that it sounds terrible.
Mostly produced by the band and Nicholas Sansano.
Run Fast (The Julie Ruin: 2013)
Not to be confused with Hanna's alter ego solo project Julie Ruin, The Julie Ruin is a band: Wilcox on bass, Kenny Mellman on keys, Sara Landeau on guitar and Carmine Covelli on drums.
Despite a few years away from the scene and struggles with Lyme disease, Hanna sounds much as she ever has ("Ha Ha Ha"), and while I'm seeking not to be one of those stuck-in-the-90s waah waah Riot Grrrl waah waah people, I'm disappointed that she has gone the Wild Flag apolitical route (with the exception of "Girls Like Us").
The band's secret weapon, though, is Mellman, whose keyboard lines ("Party City," part B-52's homage, part synthpunk, pure pleasure) and vocal asides make most of the tunes worth hearing ("Cookie Road").
Full review coming soon.