Girls' Night Out
"We're not too nice to notice," sing the women of Le Tigre, "when white wine stinks and we're misquoted." A trio of female adults making no bones about advancing a hard-line-feminist, antiwar, pro-queer political platform while making snotty, wry and infectious post-punk electronic dance music is bound to encounter a certain amount of opposition. But Le Tigre is used to it.
The band, which will be setting up shop at the Engine Room Friday night, got its start back in 1998 when former Bikini Kill vocalist and Gloria Steinem-of-'zine-culture Kathleen Hanna needed a backup group to do shows following the release of her Julie Ruin solo project. She and keyboardist-singer Johanna Fateman had been housemates and mutual admirers in Oregon back in the riot-grrrl day, and after some lineup shifting they eventually were joined by the blatantly androgynous, suavely mustached Orlando Bloom look-alike JD Samson on electronics. The band shamelessly revels in an almost B-52s-like level of kitsch and camp -- an early video depicts Kathleen casually reading an issue of Playgirl, which it turns out is being used to camouflage an IKEA catalog -- but these girls don't just want to have fun.
"It's sometimes great, sometimes futile," sighs Fateman, referring to the combo's politics. "We've been able to have an impact on a lot of young people, helping to get them involved in issues like voter registration and reproductive rights, which is really important to us and makes the more difficult parts worth it."
Le Tigre also recently made the potentially controversial leap to major label Universal Records after nearly a decade in the notoriously insular and unforgiving indie-rock underground. "I'm sure there are people who think we've sold out or whatever. But in most ways nothing has changed," asserts Fateman. "We're still a working band, and our creative process is the same. For the new CD, we got to spend more time in the studio instead of having to rush. And we never had much of an infrastructure or marketing plan before, but when This Island came out, there were, like, wheat-pasted posters up all over New York, which was a pretty bizarre sight for me personally. And we can afford better equipment."
Universal showed support for the spirit of Le Tigre by allowing them to release "New Kicks" as their first single for the label. The atypical track is little more than a big-beat sound collage of sampled highlights from antiwar speeches by the likes of Susan Sarandon, Al Sharpton and the late Ossie Davis from a February 2003 Democracy Now! rally. "It's not a traditional protest song," says Fateman. "It was released just before the November 2004 presidential election, and it's more of a document to show that there really was a huge amount of resistance going into this war, no matter how the Bush administration might want to rewrite history." (And pointed politics sit side by side with the Pointer Sisters on This Island, which also contains a wacky, reggae-flavored version of "I'm So Excited.")
Less overtly radical lyrically, but far more so musically, Electrelane will share the Engine Room stage with Le Tigre on Friday. These four women from Brighton, England, recently released their third CD, Axes, which was recorded this past winter at Chicago's Electrical Audio with legendary/infamous engineer Steve Albini.
"Last time we recorded with Steve, we were all in different rooms while we were playing," says Electrelane drummer and co-founder Emma Gaze. "That was really difficult for us, as we couldn't make eye contact or anything and it didn't feel at all natural. This time we asked him if we could set up all in one room, and we ended up doing the whole album start to finish without stopping, pretty much like a live set. We used quite a lot of takes from that first session on the record. We only went back and started over if one of us hit a massive clanger, and we really enjoyed the spontaneity of that."
The band got its start several years back when Gaze and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Verity Susman met at school (during the English "sixth form," which means they were about 17). "It was during the whole big Britpop explosion of the 1990s," says Gaze. "That was a really exciting time for us, even though we wouldn't have sounded like any of those groups at all. But Verity and I couldn't find anyone else in the school orchestra who wanted to be in a rock band anyway, so we just sort of fooled around with the idea for a long time."
Susman had been studying and playing music since she was a young girl, and by the time Electrelane became a functioning unit, she had developed some rather unconventional ideas about compositional structure and sonic organization. Many of these ideas come to fruition on Axes, which, despite its one-take recording method, is an impressively varied and textured collection, alternating between hypertense, monolithic drone-grooves, abrasive, stop-start attacks and haunting melodic passages.
Much of the disc is instrumental, but Susman's vocals gain impact from their relative scarcity. Most effective is a punked-out, jacked-up cover of Leonard Cohen's "The Partisan." Cohen's partially French, Vietnam War-era lyrics ("An old woman gave us shelter, kept us hidden in the garret, then the soldiers came, she died without a whisper") would be certain to resonate with the current geopolitical situation, if Susman's vocals could be understood. However, the words here are virtually incomprehensible unless you're familiar with the original version of the song. In contrast to the far more literal-minded Le Tigre, Electrelane's politically charged anger is implicit, almost abstract, and this is somehow disturbingly effective.
While contrasting in sound and approach, both of these bands certainly sport in-your-face, gender-centric issue-based agendas. Still, it would be a mistake to paint them as separatists, worse yet to write yourself out of an eclectic, rocking show for fear of feeling something like an outsider at an ERA rally. "The ideal audience we have in our minds is totally mixed," insists Le Tigre's Fateman. "We have tons of straight fans and white, male fans who are totally into what we do."
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