Meet Julie Ruin: librarian in boots, typist, freelance revolutionary, collage artist. Meet also Kathleen Hanna: riot grrrl progenitor, fanged lover, onetime Bikini Kill cover girl, fearless conjugator of the word “fuck.” In addition to being the same person, the two women are collaborator-partners: Where Hanna provides the vision, the rat-in-a-cage testimonials, and the muscle to lift anything heavy, Ruin follows behind with a feather duster and a can of hair spray, busily making sure nothing leaves the four-track devoid of the proper ironic tone.
Julie Ruin’s self-titled debut is Hanna’s post-Kill makeover imagine if Courtney Love showed up at the Oscars in a skirt and blouse from Sears as well as an extension of the BK revolution. The War Room may have been moved from the garage to the bedroom, and Hanna’s co-conspirators may have gone their separate ways, but she’s still reaching for self-empowerment if she has to conjure an imaginary aide to help her get there, it only bolsters her argument that it’s easier than it sounds.
Just as Bikini Kill helped neuter punk rock by proclaiming it child’s play, Julie Ruin posits electronica’s mixmaster mythology as a fussy sham. Free of her band, Hanna finds much of her backing from whatever record lies within arms reach: On “Breakout A-Town,” Hanna kisses off a lover over a Cars riff sped up to double time; for “U.G.I” she borrows guitars from the Kinks’ “Tired of Waiting for You” and glues on her own drums. In Hanna’s hands, anti-perfectionism is a virtue. The rap on “I Wanna Know What Love Is” makes Luscious Jackson sound like EPMD, but Hanna leaves little doubt that she wants to be answered. To match the broken heart of “Love Letter,” Hanna employs a loop of “I’m So Bored With the USA” that sounds as if it were recorded through a filter of wet wood.
Rarely does Hanna resort to sonic oomph when she can make do with the tools at hand. But while her cleverness can be astounding the click-clack of a typewriter provides a steady beat for “On Language” at times Hanna’s devotion to lo-fi shortchanges her talent: The mid-song yelps on “A Place Called Won’t Be There” might rival the finest of Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker if Hanna’s vocal weren’t covered in fuzz. Julie Ruin gets by on chicanery, but its best moments come when Hanna plays it straight. Shamelessly revealing, defiant, and wistful for the past, “Tania” is the sad, gushy ballad Hanna’s always had in her but never bothered to write. On “Crochet,” she lets accusations fly as if the revolution had just started: “You killed the thing.” That “thing” could be a lot of things band, movement, relationship and given the hell Hanna pays screaming the “You make me wanna crochet!” refrain, it’s a good bet that that “thing” matters a great deal.
Julie Ruin is predictably subversive coming from a woman who’s always been content releasing minor albums composed of great songs and fun filler. Before Sleater-Kinney came around, Hanna was the riot grrrl with the greatest star potential. But despite being cagily career-minded (she’s sucked up to Sonic Youth and got featured on Mike Watt’s symphony-of-indie-hipsters solo debut by refusing to participate), Hanna has always respected riot grrrl as a grass-roots affair. Unlike opportunist corollaries Love and Kat Bjelland, Hanna didn’t adore her persona in Bikini Kill so much that she was blind to its ironies; being a rock star to the handful of geeks who understood was cool enough.
So it is that her band’s de facto swan song is titled The Singles and not Greatest Hits. It’s a collection of Bikini Kill’s 7-inch output, ranging from the already immortal (“Rebel Girl”) to the obscure (pretty much everything else). But The Singles isn’t just a gift for cultists. “DemiRep” all but sums up the band’s wicked, stereotype-embracing form of protest. It begins as a game of pattycake and segues into a noisy rant (“I’m sorry that I’m getting chubby”); by song’s end, the kiddie game and the tantrum are spliced, sarcastically uniting the girly and the bitchy to clarify that it’s possible to be both and neither at the same time.
Even while all of its music sounded held together by a bobby pin, Bikini Kill was hardly allergic to mainstream sentiments and tastes. “New Radio” and “Rebel Girl” (both produced by Joan Jett) embrace bubblegum pop as much as they satirize it. “Did you tell him everything that I said?” the chilling, reoccurring line in “Anti-Pleasure Dissertation,” brings to mind a song from Lucinda Williams’ latest. But with nine songs clocking in at less than 18 minutes, The Singles is its own fuck you. Bikini Kill R.I.P. Or better yet, don’t.