BIKINI KILL: THE CD VERSION OF THE FIRST TWO RECORDS (1992; 1994)
1) Double Dare Ya; 2) Liar; 3) Carnival; 4) Suck My Left One; 5) Feels Blind; 6) Thurston Hearts The Who; 7) White Boy; 8) This Is Not A Test; 9) Don't Need You; 10) Jigsaw Youth; 11) Resist Psychic Death; 12) Rebel Girl; 13) Outta Me.
«Bikini Kill are activists, not musicians», as a passionate, but somewhat ambiguously disposed female person tells us, among other impressions of the band, in the spoken overdub on ʽThurston Hearts The Whoʼ, and, frankly speaking, I was not even sure whether it was worth tackling this band in the first place — because, well, it is pretty hard to deny that Kathleen Hanna and her band of Amazon warriors use music primarily, if not exclusively, as a «sociopolitical tool», trying as hard as possible not to stoop to thinking about it as a value in itself. But then, what the heck? They only have had a few albums out, and some of the songs are fun, and when you deal with punk music, it takes a real brain surgeon to understand where «music» ends and «activism» begins. And besides, in my collection they are probably the closest thing to Pussy Riot, a «band» that has even less musical substance (at least Bikini Kill have a vague understanding of how to play their instruments) but for which I have actually gotten review requests — so, since I am never ever going to review Pussy Riot, why not say a few words on Bikini Kill instead?
So, in a nutshell: Bikini Kill are the spearheaders of the «Riot Grrrl» movement (that's three r's, right? don't forget to check your spelling every time), an aggressive (thankfully, non-lethal so far) punk-feminist current in music and performance art which many people have heard of, but few can identify by any names of its representatives — in fact, some of the less politically minded, but more commercially popular or critically applauded bands (such as Hole or Babes In Toyland) have also been dubbed «Riot Grrrl» by the unsuspecting, deeply confused masses. Well, finally, here are Bikini Kill, and they are the real thing.
Describing the band's sound is not particularly difficult, since they never worked hard at putting any unique stamp on it. A standard 4-piece band with a rhythm section, one guitar player, and one vocalist. The guitar player (Billy Karren) is surprisingly male (it is not known if the other girls ever referred to him as «our bitch») and may have been hired as a political gesture (to show that «radical feminism» does not imply cessation of interaction with the other sex), or, more likely, because, deep down in their hearts, they all secretly admit that girls are pussies and that no girl can ever play a real mean PUNK RAWK guitar. (There was no Avril Lavigne back in those days, you understand). Anyway, it's not as if Billy himself were all that great — he has mastered the Ramones and the Dead Kennedys bag of guitar tricks all right, but there is really nothing here, musically, that you wouldn't find on a bunch of classic punk and hardcore punk records from the previous decade and a half.
The vocalist is a whole other thing, but enjoying her vocals is certainly an acquired taste if there ever was one — Kathleen Hanna has one of those battle cries you'd expect to hear from a particularly nasty old harpy: sharp, high-pitched, nasal, nails-on-chalkboard type that rips the living flesh right out of your ears. Her real voice, as you hear it in interviews, is kind of grating, too, but she intentionally makes it sound even nastier on record, so that it resonates with extreme «bratty» nastiness. Not a bawl or a banshee wail or a masculine epic-warrior thing, just this really ugly «nyah-nyah-nyah» soundwave to which you have to get yourself attuned real quick, or you will be climbing up the wall in no time. But Hanna's voice is the essence of Bikini Kill — in a way, that voice is the message, not to mention that you will most likely not be able to get the verbal message anyway, not without a lyrics sheet.
The album in question, true to the name, puts together some of the first samples of Bikini Kill's recorded output — the EP Bikini Kill and the first side of a split LP that they shared with Huggy Bear (a «para-riot-grrrl» band from the UK), both originally released in 1992. The sound, as is easy to guess, is delightfully / disgustingly lo-fi, with one exception: ʽRebel Girlʼ, the loudest, «cleanest», and arguably best-known Bikini Kill song of all time, not just because it is so easily identifiable as an anthem, but also because it is their catchiest and poppiest, where their female-Neanderthal approach takes a little grooming and the whole thing sounds like a tribute to The Troggs. As crude as the lyrics are ("they say she's a dyke, but I know she is my best friend" —what's that «but» supposed to mean???), the tune is a fun one, and at least the guitars are raw enough to count it as «the real thing». It may be silly-punk, but it ain't faux-punk.
As for everything else, well, if you are big on recycled, but honest, punk aesthetics, you might like most of this — Billy has a good grip on that old legacy, pilfering from punk greats for all they're worth on tracks like ʽLiarʼ and ʽResist Psychic Deathʼ, but much of the time he's just providing an information-free wall of chainsaw buzz (ʽSuck My Left Oneʼ, ʽDon't Need Youʼ), which leaves us with little to do other than concentrate on Hanna and her little fits of girl-power rage. Sometimes she really goes over the top ("eat meat, hate blacks, beat your fuckin' wife — it's all connected" — not a highly scientific viewpoint, if you ask me), but at least the sincerity of her actions cannot be denied, even if the crudeness and banality of her denouncements can be a turnoff (ʽWhite Boyʼ — a point-blank range hit at sexism that, for some reason, also implicates the race issue, but how is raping a «slut rocker bitch walking down the street» an offense particularly typical of a «white boy»? Isn't that confusing the issues a little? Then again, there has rarely been a band on Earth more confused than Bikini Kill. Maybe they are musicians after all).
A few of the tracks are just sonic hooliganry with a sneer, such as ʽThurston Hearts The Whoʼ, where the already mentioned spoken overdub is superimposed over a noisy, mock-avantgarde track — the primary message here being: "if you think Sonic Youth is cool and you think that they think that you're not that cool, does that mean everything to you?" Ridiculing Sonic Youth is a respectable position, the problem being that it's not as if they were offering a hell of a lot in exchange. But at least it is good to know that aggressive feminism is not the only thing that Hanna and her sisters are interested in.
If only at least a couple more songs here were like ʽRebel Girlʼ, I might even have gone ahead with a thumbs up. As it is, the compilation is an important cultural artefact, and an acknowledged influence on «rebel girls» around the world, but too much of it is boring, and too much of it is grating on the nerves, to call it a consistently «fun» listening experience. If you find yourself in need of a spiritual awakening, be their guest. If, however, you are not one of those «white boys» casually referring to «slut rocker bitches» in your everyday life, you might want to listen to something more musically oriented instead.