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Ever since she first began recording at age 10, singer-guitarist Kaia Wilson’s brand of punk rock has been an ongoing process of coming out a sonic record of her fiery personal passion, her bouts with identity politics, her crushes, her heroes, and her crushing defeats.
Wilson is a proud and defiant rocker. Her music declares her sexuality loudly and clearly, playing on the inherent energy and anger of punk to deliver an emotional account of everything she is and everything she’s been through. She preaches self-defense and self-reliance for women, especially young girls in the underground punk and indie-rock scenes who are most likely to hear her message, and sings unabashed love songs to her feminist heroes. From the grunge dirges of her early ’90s hardcore outfit Adickdid to the incredible pop-punk of legendary queer rockers Team Dresch and the subdued beauty of her recent solo acoustic records, Wilson takes cues in equal parts from the gay-rights maxim “Silence = Death” and Henry Rollins’ blunt proclamation of punkdom: “Silence sucks.” She weaves easily between lesbian-folksinger-with-an-acoustic-guitar coffeehouse blues and the distinct screaming and distorted guitar attacks of a studied riot grrrl.
Are We Not Femme?, the debut album by the Butchies, Wilson’s most recent vehicle, finds her continuing in the direction she’s taken since leaving Team Dresch. The album reprises “Madame” and “Salamander,” two songs from her earlier record Kaia, but the Butchies are clearly more than just a backup band. Wilson’s former Team Dresch bandmate Melissa York sits at the drum stool, and Alison Martlew rounds out the three-piece on bass. On tracks like “To Be Broadcast Live” and “The Galaxy Is Gay,” discerning Team Dresch fans will have to listen closely to make out significant changes. “Ellen D.,” the Butchies’ ode to Ms. DeGeneres’ infamous TV coming-out episode, comes from the same vein of hero worship that Team Dresch songs once mined to honor Sinead O’Connor (“Sometimes it feels all right /Like when you rip up a picture of the pope”) and the dyke-rock icon Phranc.
But elsewhere on the record, the Butchies take pains to distance themselves from the Team Dresch legacyand not always to profound effect. “Disco (Feminist Dance Mix)” comes off, predictably, as bad homage to bad ’80s New Wave. “Madame” and “Salamander” don’t benefit much from the added backup instrumentation, and they suffer somewhat in the new arrangements. For a real sense of Wilson’s capabilities, I’d refer listeners to either of Wilson’s solo albums or either of the Team Dresch records. Which is not to say that the Butchies don’t have a certain charm all their own. The band’s cover version of Cris Williamson’s 1975 “Shooting Star” is a rousing, rocking tribute (the Butchies thank Williamson in their acknowledgements “for being radical and singing songs to girls before too many others were”) and serves as the record’s most notable testament to York’s talents at the drum kit.
The opening “To Be Broadcast Live” is easily the best song on the record, a blistering meditation on countercultural revolution that allows Wilson to showcase both her screamy growl and her breathless, beautiful voice, and also gives the band a chance to let rip. “What’s the R-E-V without someone who knows what it’s like to cross over and go live?” sings Wilson, accentuating each occurrence of the word “live” with a screeching delivery. “If you had to choose a leader/Who would it be and what would they do?/…What’s the R-E-V without conviction/Did you think we needed your permission/What’s the R-E-V stand for anyway?/What’s the R-E-V-O-L-U to be live?”
The visual gag on the album cover, a send-up of Devo’s hit record Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, portrays Wilson & Co. posing awkwardly in pink wigs, sleeveless blue blouses, shiny red skirts, blue socks, and white sandals. The “Are we not femme?” question is answered in the back cover’s depiction of the band, true to form, as “butchies.” It’s Wilson’s wiseacre way of suggesting that the band members’ sexuality is as central to their music as Devo’s fundamental nerdiness was to theirs. This is the Butchies’ revolution: They’re ready to go live. And there is nothing in the Butchies’ music or in Wilson’s persona to suggest they’d have a problem with replacing the “Devo” in their response to the question with a rhyming, resounding “Lesbo.”CP