Hanna's new band, the riot-grrls-catch-disco-fever Le Tigre, arrived in late 1999 with an uneven but often thrilling eponymous debut that gradually found an audience and landed on Spin's list of 2000's 10 best albums. With its ruminations on indie-film icon John Cassavetes and shout-outs to academic/feminist heroines that less well-educated listeners have likely never heard of, Le Tigre carried an art-school aftertaste that, for some, may have clashed with the political populism inherent in the music's punked-out pleasure principle.
But with the new From the Desk of Mr. Lady (the band's record label), they've delivered a more direct, more forceful statement, one that finds the band less preaching to the choir than taking a bullhorn into the crowd. At seven songs in 17 minutes, it's the most fully alive collection of music to hit the racks so far this year.
The first words from Kathleen Hanna's mouth on Le Tigre were, "Who took the BOMP?!" The line was a reference to an early-Sixties hit, now oldies radio staple, from Brill Building songwriter Barry Mann, "Who Put the Bomp (In the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp)." Mann's song is a loving tribute to the simple sonic joy of early doo-wop and rock-and-roll. "Bomp," in Mann's song, refers not only to the common nonsense syllables deployed in early rock and soul, but to that music's ineffable magic; "bomp" is an essence so otherworldly that it's assumed that some outside force had to put it there.
Hanna evokes the line at a time when hip hop and R&B are absolutely bompalicious but when the world of white guitar rock, both the mainstream and underground, is noticeably lacking in bomp. But Hanna doesn't just bemoan the lack of spirit in modern rock, she puts the bomp back. With an inspired amalgam of pogo-punk, new-wavey disco, and hip-hop-bred beat racket, Hanna and crew have taken to heart the essential message for any would-be rock-and-roll revolutionaries: Fun Matters.
Le Tigre's music is a rebuke to mainstream rock culture -- reactionary, macho, money-mad, solipsistic. But it's also a seemingly conscious rebuke to the boycentric side of the rock underground -- obscurantist, pleasureless, apolitical, solipsistic. Who took the BOMP?!
If Radiohead mope-maven Thom Yorke is the new frontman of a suffocating, art-rock-loving alternative culture, then Le Tigre offers a hearty, rude "I dissent." On the new record's "Mediocrity Rules," the dullard date being skewered could be the male half of Le Tigre's native indie-rock world: "I can see it in your eyes that nothing scares you like a real idea." If so much that passes for independent rock these days is a withdrawal into the subcultural closet, then Le Tigre feels triumphant for how broadly their homemade agitpop engages the world. This is music made on the fringes but aimed squarely at the center. In the words of like-minded Sleater-Kinney, this band has come to join the conversation and is here to raise the stakes.
But if the beatwise bump 'n' grind of Le Tigre's music is enough to get them in the door, the messages and emotions it carries make it a Trojan horse. The band sports female vocals alternately flat, bored, and exasperated or shrieking, taunting, and declamatory -- an Everygirl voice that is everything assured, professional singing is not supposed to be and is all the more thrilling for it. The band's lyrics are expressions of basic political outrage and common-language calls to arms, fed-up meditations on feminist backlash and lowered cultural expectations.
From the Desk of Mr. Lady starts off in a funk -- "It feels so '80s/Or early '90s/To be political/Where are my friends?" -- but then blasts through it -- "Get off the Internet!/I'll meet you in the street!" The record's centerpiece is the Amadou Diallo-inspired "Bang! Bang!," the most galvanizing "protest" song in recent memory. Instead of artists with issues, the band sounds like outraged citizens (which, as non-rock-star New Yorkers, is exactly what they are) turning the town hall meeting into a radical house party, screaming the truth in the plainest, crudest terms they can come up with: "Murder is murder/Why're they confused?" and "Wrong fucking time/wrong fucking place/There is no fucking way this is not about race."
If the rousing harangues of Rage Against the Machine sound like pamphlet polemics, Le Tigre's politics are more conversational and lived-in -- like a pissed-off neighbor grabbing you by the collar on the street and throwing their anger in your face -- and anger almost seems too tame. Last year the band paused during an ode to public transportation to offer a deliciously succinct dismissal of their martial-law mayor -- "Oh, fuck Giuliani/He's such a fucking jerk/Shut down all the strip bars/Workfare does not work." Here they ask for his head.
From the Desk of Mr. Lady is an art-punk answer to the imposing challenge that has been laid down by hip-hop heroes Outkast: It's political party music that breaks down musical barriers, speaks truth to power, and never forgets to dance this mess around. But Le Tigre's triumph also hints at further riches below, and one new band that's risen to the challenge is Sleater-Kinney labelmates the Gossip.
The Gossip aren't at all engaged with the outside world -- the lyrical content of the band's recent full-length debut, That's Not What I Heard, never gets beyond first-person accounts of tumultuous young love. But it takes the same musical lesson to heart: Cramming 14 songs into 24 unrelenting minutes, this introductory blast from the Arkansas-by-way-of-Olympia punk band is a wide-open wonder, nothing but bomp. Crashing backbeats shadow-box punk-blues guitar that should make the folks at Fat Possum wet themselves, while lead singer "Beth" wails over the top of the clamor like the bastard child of Janis Joplin and um Kathleen Hanna. (Blues Foundation Alert: Please consider That's Not What I Heard when putting together the "Best Debut" category at next year's Handy Awards.)
Maybe it's their Southernness, but with their blues-drenched guitar, gospelized vocals, and comfortable expressions of sexuality, the Gossip sound more open to "black music" without being calculating about it than any other contemporary punk band that never varies from the guitar-bass-drums format.
"Swing Low" is a lesbian-punk booty call with Beth establishing herself as the most sexualized punk singer on the planet ("Better make it good/Better make it now/Well, baby, shake it honey/Nobody has to know"), while her bandmates back that azz up approvingly ("Make it oh-oh good/Make-it-make-it-make-it now").
Can an all-girl art-collective-turned-pop-band become the new Rage Against the Machine or Public Enemy? Doubtful. Can three scruffy kids on a tiny record label defiantly called Kill Rock Stars sweep bar-band blooze into the dustbin of history? No way. But if you find yourself scanning rock radio and wondering what happened to the bomp, don't say I didn't give you a heads up.
You can e-mail Chris Herrington at firstname.lastname@example.org.