By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
ON AT LEAST one spikey subject, the new tome Trouble Girls: The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock (to which this writer contributed) already shows its age: Written mostly in 1995, the collection repeatedly favors Courtney Love's media triumph over the then-fading riot grrrl phenomenon in a false face-off of provocative populist vs. dogmatic elite. This fall, a well air-brushed Love stared blankly from the covers of Harper's Bazaar and Us, apparently digging life as a designer-dressed celebrity pod. Descendents and past practitioners of riot grrrl are meanwhile tossing off foxy, fun-filled albums--Sleater-Kinney's second masterwork Dig Me Out being only the most celebrated--and whirling across the country like tiny, technicolor tornados. You tell me who's elitist.
One Trouble Girls essay does cite the post-riot greatness of Team Dresch, the anthemic dyke band that set r.g.'s usual furious female confessions and (shock!) gender twists to a more dynamic musical backdrop. Crafty dyke outfits have also kicked up much of the current ruckus--and not just because their political program has yet to be usurped and watered down by the Meredith Brookses of the world. The sharpest of this batch, Olympia, Washington's the Need, spout lyrics so fragmented and fantastic (sample: "I hear elastic trumpets rear up in a modern girl!") that their queerness goes beyond sex preference. At once more musically conservative and inventive than their foregrrrls, they sound unbelievable, alien--mutant newborns with eyes old as (rock) stars.
The two women in the Need, who play the Whole this Tuesday, do not try to dress up in put-upon innocence. Singer/drummer Rachel Carns grew up in small-town Wisconsin, studied in New York, played stand-up snare, and crooned in the winsome indie duo Kicking Giant. After 1995, Carns joined up with legendary Portland queercorists the Ce Be Barnes Band; she and guitarist/engineer Radio Tragedy outlasted their bandmates, becoming the Need along the way.
On The Need (Kill Rock Stars), the duo's songs seem both deliberate and organic, artificial, and sensual. The sum is a mocking, gleeful monster mash, but the parts arrive jagged and hard: Wire a dirty AC/DC riff to horror organ, trip drums over it, and electrify with fake hysterical vocals, and you've got the idea. It's like femme punkers Liliput writing a funky soundtrack to Hell House. Or Diamanda Galas fronting Devo on "Under My Thumb." The Need make a highly self-conscious, artful noise that somehow leaves you on your ass in the grass with your legs wide open.
In the riot grrrl/dykecore context of right-on testimonial, the Need's refusal of any assumed integrity is startling: Their songs present the very bodies of lovers as chopped up, atomized, unnatural even ("Put on your lip!...Put on your dick!"), with the understanding that everything known--including sex, sexual identity, identity--has in some part been constructed. Being aware of that artificiality doesn't make good sex, music, or a hard-won identity any less sweet ("Saccharine cube 4 honey," taunts the last song). Actually the artifice makes all those things more precious--because you have been responsible for pulling the sundry signifiers together into a momentary, ecstatic fusion (a hook, a fuck) that then blows the world apart again ("Heard you went & lost yr head, heard it fall behind the bed").
The melodic guitar rock of Once Upon a Time Called Now (Chainsaw), by Los Angeles's Longstocking, may sound safe by comparison. But these Donna Dresch signees also pen self-consciously sardonic lesbionic words, ripe with awareness of themselves as both musicians and fans, players and played ("She's the one," sighs Tamala Poljak, "on the radio"). And Longstocking's deliriously hooky songs don't hesitate to reach past punk; they remind me of early Soul Asylum (not a bad thing!), who reminded me of the '70s (not always a bad thing).
Ditto Oakland's the PeeChees, though, judging from their two wild-hair albums on Kill Rock Stars, their touchstone would more likely be the Stooges. With ex-Bratmobiler Molly Neuman on drums, this frantic foursome can righteously claim riot grrrl roots; with synchronized swingers Rop, the amused Filipino bassist, and Carlos, the campily suave Latino guitarist, the PeeChees offhandedly pull off what r.g. has never before managed--color coordination. But this nongay (?) but very queer group's most subversive sleight of hand must be nasal ranter Chris, he of the stripper wiggles and peekaboo belly. Slurring vehement nonsensicals with flippant disregard for key, Chris speaks here as a completely destabilized frontman, the white rock guy whose voice, sexuality, intention, and meaning are more in question with every lurch. The original riot grrrls may not have envisioned the PeeChees in their feminist future; luckily, they got the offspring they deserved.