"Peppermint Schnapps and super-sized sundaes with chocolate sauce." —the Julie Ruin, "Run Fast"
There's a reason Kathleen Hanna disappeared for six years after the end of Le Tigre and before the beginning of the Julie Ruin (the band, not the solo record she released in 1998).
If you've seen the documentary The Punk Singer, you know about her struggles with Lyme disease, and if you missed it, this interview will catch you up. She may have also needed a break from music-making—as well as the adoration of some pretty intense fans—but she's back now and sounding better than ever.
If Le Tigre seemed like an odd fit for a major label, Hanna returns to her riot grrrl roots by putting out the first Julie Ruin album on her own. Nonetheless, it plays more like an extension of Le Tigre's electro-pop than Bikini Kill's agit-punk (the five-piece includes bass player Kathi Wilcox from Bikini Kill and keyboard player Kenny Mellman from Kiki and Herb). The emphasis on rubbery party grooves also reminds me of the early B-52's, especially since Mellman handles the vocals on one song, "South Coast Plaza," while adding counterpoint to several others. My favorite Mellman moment: when he contributes to the "Girls Like Us" chorus.
Hanna described her skirt-free look as a business outfit
Though I've been following Hanna's career for a couple of decades, I was never one of her adoring fans (I've written about several documentaries in which she appears, but I've never actually reviewed any of her recordings). If anything, I was always a little skeptical, particularly after I caught Bikini Kill at St. Joseph's Hall in 1992, where the group made me uncomfortable—and not in a good way. I wasn't really feeling it, but after Hanna called out a male audience member who didn't appear to be doing anything wrong, I decided they weren't for me. Shows should offer a safe space for women, but men deserve the same consideration.
But I always liked Le Tigre—"Get Off the Internet" seems even more relevant today than it did 13 years ago—and my appreciation for Bikini Kill grew after seeing The Punk Singer, which makes a case for their musicianship and not just for their third-wave politics or for their influence on most every female-driven act to follow in their wake, which includes the Vivian Girls whose bassist, Katie Goodman, opened for the Julie Ruin last night at Neumos with her band La Sera.
If Run Fast is less overtly confrontational than the projects with which Hanna has been involved in the past, it's just as spirited and energetic. Though it hues closer to pop than rock, Hanna yells, shouts, and swears: she's gotten older, but she hasn't gotten old. In the live context, the album took on more of a garage-punk dimension. The grooves still abounded, but there was more punch to Sara Landeau's guitar work, though Mellman proved to be the band's secret weapon with his singing, his playing, his moves, and his quips (he's a great foil for Hanna).
If I had to choose between the Julie Ruin live or in the studio, I would call it a draw. Both have their merits, but in different ways. If it took awhile for Mellman's recorded vocals to grow on me—he's a bit of a grumbler—I was frustrated that I couldn't hear him properly at Neumos (no such problem with Hanna). I also found myself growing restless during the ballad the band played toward the end of the set, but then they came out for an encore and performed the dreamy, keyboard-driven "Run Fast," which concludes the album—and it sounded just as good live.
I'm glad Hanna feels better, I'm glad she's back, and I love the Julie Ruin.
Mellman took off his long-sleeve shirt to reveal this tee
Run Fast is out now on TJR Records through Dischord. Sundance Selects, a division of IFC Films, will be distributing The Punk Singer (release dates TBA).