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The Julie Ruin, Wild Flag, and the Hard-Won Ecstasy of the Riot Grrrl

When The Julie Ruin played Brooklyn’s tiny Union Pool last month, in one of the band’s first public performances, Kathleen Hanna told the audience that everyone who’s heard the band’s new album has remarked upon how happy it sounds. Although it is undeniably upbeat, she pointed out to the crowd of longtime fans and friends that the lyrics on Run Fast are darker and more morbid than the music suggests.

And, of course, she’s right: it bears mention that the The Julie Ruin’s new release (the project’s debut as a band, but the second album Hanna has issued under that moniker, after 1998’s self-titled solo record) offers nuanced observations on topics like Hanna’s prolonged battle with Lyme disease, young artists and activists struggling in an economically polarized New York, and the ambivalent legacy of riot grrrl. As always, these themes are all tied up with feminism in specific and politics in general, but — as with the first Julie Ruin album — come from a more intimate, explicitly autobiographical perspective than most of Hanna’s Bikini Kill and Le Tigre songs.

What sets it apart from the first Julie Ruin record, though, is that while the former sounds like it was recorded in a bedroom (it basically was), Run Fast sounds like it was recorded in the midst of the house party of a lifetime. This might have something to do with the fact that, in its full-band incarnation, The Julie Ruin is comprised of the kind of This Is Your Life hodgepodge of Hanna associates you might expect to find at, say, her birthday bash: ex-Bikini Kill band mate Kathi Wilcox; cabaret artist Kenny Mellman, who’s best known as the Herb half of Kiki & Herb; Willie Mae Rock Camp pal Sara Landeau; and Carmine Covelli, who collaborated with Le Tigre. It’s clear from the music that each band member brings a different skill set and sensibility to the mix, and that The Julie Ruin had a whole lot of fun throwing together pop melodies, girl-group harmonies, new wave eccentricity, and Hanna’s unmistakable punk wail.

This doesn’t always work; plenty of bands have trouble translating the exuberance of a live show or the energy of collaboration into a great recording. But The Julie Ruin pull it off on Run Fast by welcoming all of us — Hanna’s fans, Mellman’s, aging punks, every pissed-off young person in New York, weird girls the world over — to the party, with insight and humor and sing-along choruses and hooks destined for the dance floor. And what’s so unifying about this celebration is that it feels like the culmination of, and a triumph over, bullshit of all kinds: Hanna’s illness, interpersonal conflicts, the stresses of being both a historical figure and a living, evolving artist. It’s true that it’s reductive to call this a happy album; its emotional tenor is too complex for that. Run Fast is, more accurately, an ecstatic album.

That ecstasy most often seems to come out of the experience of making and enjoying music. “I’m on the fuckin’ table with the stereo!” Hanna shouts out on “Party City.” A few tracks later, on “Right Home,” it’s the rallying cry of the live-show junkie: “I just need music loud, even if it’s a bad show.” As she told The New York Times, forming The Julie Ruin was essential to her recovery: “When I would practice and I would feel O.K., I saw me again.”

Her words remind me of another great (albeit vastly sonically different) post-riot grrrl project: Wild Flag, whose guitarist, Carrie Brownstein, started out in the same Olympia, Washington scene as Bikini Kill. If you take non-musical projects like Portlandia out of the equation, she and Hanna have had fairly similar trajectories: from raw feminist punk (Brownstein’s first band was Excuse 17) to more musically sophisticated second acts (Brownstein’s Sleater-Kinney and Hanna’s Le Tigre), after which they took extended hiatuses from recording and touring. In the past two years, both women have reappeared with bands whose core message is of music as salvation. “We love the sound, the sound is what found us / Sound is the blood between me and you,” Brownstein and Mary Timony sing on “Romance,” the track that sets the tone for Wild Flag’s entire self-titled 2011 debut. Considering how many male punks and rock critics in the early ’90s accused riot grrrl bands of apathy towards and incompetence at actually making music, the hard-won joy The Julie Ruin and Wild Flag now derive from it — and share with their fans — seems doubly triumphant.

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