The Julie Ruin
, September 23rd, 2013 03:14
Hearing Kathleen Hanna’s voice again gives me a lump in my throat. It’s been a while. For so many of us her voice is as familiar and emotive as any of your Morrisseys or Joe Strummers, and while for some reason this recognition brings on the ire of a few (for apparently as long as "punk’s not dead" questioning the punk rock credentials of women will also never die… snore…), the force and influence of her 20 year musical career is undeniable.
Kathleen Hanna doesn’t need me to defend her from the haters though, with lyrics like "you’re just a fake well-read, super-mean girl, who I don’t want anywhere near my world" (from the full throttle second track about toxic friendships, 'Ha Ha Ha'), it’s clear that on Run Fast she’s as tough and snarling as she’s ever been, despite, or perhaps because of, her on-going battle with Lyme’s disease which has kept her from working these past six years.
Of course, The Julie Ruin is not just Kathleen Hanna. While the late 90s incarnation –"Julie Ruin"– was Kathleen's solo project, this new band is a collaboration with Bikini Kill bandmate Kathi Wilcox, Kenny Mellman (Kiki and Herb), Sara Landeau (teacher at the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls), and Carmine Covelli (the Tender Moments).
That the album was made by friends is obvious; it exudes inclusivity and energy, with girl-group backing vocals and handclaps you can join in with. Kenny Mellman’s danceable synth and unhinged growl/howl is an unexpected counterpoint to Kathleen's athletic, megaphone vocals, and he's especially great when taking the lead on anti-Summer of 69 track, 'South Coast Plaza', an off kilter mis-remembering of drug and alcohol fuelled teenage hangings-out ("yeah it was summer. Pretty sure it was summer?!"). It's an uplifting, truthful pisstake, which pops that tired old bubble of nostalgia for youth.
This subversion runs like an undercurrent throughout the album. Beyond the fun-time veneer of Run Fast, there are melancholy themes of ageing and death, with the struggle with Lyme's disease informing much of the lyrical content. In an interview with Bitch magazine she discussed how her speech became muddled, leading to odd word combinations. 'Girls Like Us', a bratty reminder that girls are not identikit ("girls like us eat salt for breakfast, girls like us are bad in bed, girls like us refuse to hang licence plates on the wall") took its random lyrics from that terrifying experience. On 'Goodnight, Goodbye' wrapped up in deceptively sweet keyboard, she muses "what happens when you're not 20 but 41?", would the younger you sneer at what you've become?
Musically, this album feels a lot safer than anything from the early Julie Ruin; guitar solos have appeared and the combo of new wave synth and 60s girl-group round off any rough, experimental edges. Consequently the sense of urgency and intimacy is much less apparent. Kathleen Hanna is no longer phoning you from her bedroom.
But examine any disappointment you may feel (as I did initially) that the new Julie Ruin isn't held together with tape and twine any more (as she says on 'Goodnight, Goodbye') and question whether this is a fan's reluctance accept age and change. It's true, Kathleen Hanna's music changed my life, but to say this implies that she's already been archived, that any discussion of her music is automatically a nostalgia-fest. Ditching the scratched up DIY sound and collaborating with friends who are committed musicians has provided a platform for a more nuanced record and is a reminder that she is an evolving working artist.
Nostalgia is not completely done away, however. Stand out title track, 'Run Fast' is ode to the girls of Kathleen's youth, but is a poignant tale for many a woman in punk, about growing up a young outsider and encountering sexism, to "years later we’d be told we weren’t real punks by boys in bands who acted like our dads when they were drunk, and they can all brag now about how they were there, when we took over the stage and took our fair share". This is a new incarnation of The Julie Ruin, and it's still raising the goosebumps on my arms.