Sunday, November 24, 2013
The Julie Ruin: Run Fast (2013)
And here it is, the hardest album of the decade to turn off. Go ahead and try it; set Run Fast, the first official LP of Kathleen Hanna's new band the Julie Ruin (though she used the name for an apparently avant garde-ish side project back in the '90s), playing on your turntable or laptop or whatever and try to persuade yourself to shut the thing off after track two or three. Track eleven, even. Impossible. The thing is such a damn unrepressed, unfiltered joy that it's a true act of self-denial not to give it your full attention and make yourself a space in your probably messy work area for a small dance party, solo or otherwise.
It's so fucking reductive to classify this as "riot grrl revenge" or whatnot, which isn't meant as a knock on Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, L7, Sleater-Kinney, whatever other bands you might classify under a label that was once very necessary to point up the changeover in '90s rock that happened underneath the distraction of all the now-irrelevant grunge sludge doldrums. Those are great bands and the trend of women asserting their place in the rock sphere without apology was and is worth commenting on -- but at this point, why gender it? Even some pro critics have asserted Run Fast as music "for girls," and it may be true (and is perfectly reasonable) that women seeking jump-start rhythms and top-of-lungs exuberance are a prime target audience. No objection to that. Objection to the idea that music needs to be condescended to, ghettoized, or "classified" strictly as a result of the gender of three of the four members of the band. This is rock & roll music played by women, and it's okay to be heartened by that. It is not "female rock & roll music."
Hanna's presence, of course, inevitably brings forth the riot grrl response; she's a genuine giant in the alternative popverse and has been for a couple of decades now. Sidelined for a good while by a serious illness, mostly silent for several years, she put together this new band in 2010 and unfurled it with a bang on this triumphant, consistently wonderful debut record that aims itself squarely at those without a point of reference in the '90s lineage of the music. It's not meant necessarily for Bikini Kill fans, though they'll almost certainly dig it, or those who witnessed firsthand the gradual sickening standardization of rock radio in the '90s that briefly made room for imaginative, exciting music like this and then buried it all in a macho sea of Staind and Pearl Jam clones. If anything, the better moment for the Julie Ruin is now, when most of us are no longer reliant on the same tastemakers to find our music -- tastemakers still, but a larger number of them. To lay out influences and origins and pages and pages of ancestral context for Understanding the Julie Ruin seems completely pointless, an unnecessary roadblock in what is finally a pure shot of pleasure that one appreciates immediately and then increasingly so with further listening (and dancing).
More than anything, this music seems timeless, evocative as much of core rock & roll skewed by bands in the '60s -- the restless good humor and playful, warped pop of the Remains or the Raiders and the slapdash "let's make noise" giddiness of Sam the Sham or early Love (compare the shout-into-sweetness of "You I'll Be Following" or sheer chaos of "7 & 7 Is") -- as the more obvious punk references: the Slits, X-Ray Spex, the Adverts. My first emotional thought was one of the bands I've most passionately championed over the last few years, the Swedish shouty punkers Love Is All, who of course were informed in large part by the very music Hanna was making back in the '90s. I don't know if Hanna has even heard LIA's records, but what makes Run Fast so special, I think, is that beyond the aesthetic similarities, it shares Love Is All's open-hearted passion and sense of the spectacular. There is less open yearning and romance in Run Fast, and the writing owes more to hallowed, blistering '50s rock & roll, but I feel the same kinship with these shout-along words and indelible melodies, and the absolute vibrance and enthusiasm both bands share. Who won't be singing along by the end of the very first cut, "Oh Come On"? Probably nobody who's much fun to hang out with, frankly.
That timelessness is fulfilled not just by the splendidly straight-ahead, banged-out perfection of the band itself but the way they so readily interpret and carry to the brink of bliss the songs Hanna's written. She has a way with a pop construction, and there are so many delightful tics and cathartic peaks in these songs it's hard to name highlights without getting overwhelmed. Numbers two and three, the clever surf-rock snarl "Ha Ha Ha" and magnificent Spectorian creation "Just My Kind," are so phenomenal I first mistook the album for being slightly front-loaded, but at this point it's clear that were the record to begin with any three of its thirteen selections one would initially have the same impression, simply because the band's sound is so immediately appealing and the hit to the jugular takes a bit to wear off.
As it happens, heard over and over again, the album doesn't let up, and one three-minute perfection strikes back and follows another. (The only lengthier song until the dramatic closer "Run Fast" is a delightful keyboard interlude called "Goodnight Goodbye.") These shouts and melodies certainly have a little anger and distress in them, but your overriding impression is of their joy, alive and pure at their simplest and most complex ("Kids in NY," a sort of hipster-targeting "White Riot"; the partially spoken-word and poetic "South Coast Plaza"; the towering title cut). No weak cuts here, all electric and enormous, maddening and crazed guitar rock -- with well-placed shots of synth and propulsion. They don't make 'em this fun nearly often enough, and it sometimes takes a brilliant veteran to have the focus and experience to provide us with an insight that deep.
[I don't usually do this, but read this excellent interview with Hanna if you have the time. Then buy the fuck out of this fabulous record, please.]