Newly riot-ous or not, the latest renaissance of “girl” rock takes a scalpel to the pumped-up sounds and stances of contemporary hard rock, which in many cases is just another reprise of early-’70s heavy-metal pomposity. But the simple, even stark sounds of outfits like Mecca Normal, Bratmobile, and Tiger Trap—all bands with essential links to the low-tech, low-budget world of the cottage-industry 7-inch single—don’t merely call into question the grand gestures of a new generation of arena-rock potentates. They also prove remarkably effective on their terms.
Well before the word “girl” (or the variant “grrrl”) came self-consciously back into acceptance, Mecca Normal was questioning the world of the “Strong White Male,” the title of the first track on the duo’s Jarred Up. Assembled from singles and compilation tracks released between 1987 and 1993, these 22 edgy songs use only the voice (sometimes in duet with itself) of Jean Smith and the guitar of David Lester. (Smith contributes guitar noise to two tracks.) The unadorned format recalls the early Patti Smith/Lenny Kaye team-up, but this Smith (who has a novel due out soon) is less involved in rock ‘n’ roll myth and less interested in commercial crossover. “Man thinks woman when he looks at me,” notes the singer in “Man Thinks Woman,” but Jarred Up is here to demonstrate that that’s far too reductive.
Smith may have the words, but Lester’s sometimes caustic, sometimes lyrical guitar is equally important. Indeed, the essence of this Vancouver duo is the symbiosis between Smith’s instrumental voice and Lester’s vocal guitar. Their dialogue has a versatility that belies the band’s voice/guitar setup; following the lyrics has its benefits, but compositions like “Follow Down” have an incantatory power that’s purely musical.
The basic approach guarantees that the earliest tracks on Jarred have plenty in common with the latest, yet there’s room to move within the self-imposed stylistic straitjacket: On “Armchairs Fit” and “Rose,” Lester’s guitar summons the propulsive power of a full garage band, while “He Didn’t Say” matches the guitarist’s folkish finger-picking with Smith’s voice and buzzing guitar noise.
Marrying the earnestness of folk to the impact of rock (compare the Raincoats and early Billy Bragg) is an essential gambit of such sophisticated primitives, but Mecca Normal keeps its balance better than most. In the anti-materialist, anti-American rant, “More More More,” when Smith decries the people “that keep you wanting more more more,” she makes her point with less less less. “All I want you to do/Is think about the possibilities,” the song concludes. Jarred Up offers, as that other Smith once put it, “a sea of possibilities.”
Bratmobile collects and substantially supplements the various singles it’s been releasing all over the place on Pottymouth, and the cumulative effect of these two-minute, two-chord toss- offs is surprisingly sweeping. This Washington-bred trio—two of whose members have scattered to Berkeley and Olympia, respectively, while the other remains in Bethesda—is above all very funny, but the 16 breathless tracks here also reveal canny minimalist pop smarts. Sloppy, harsh, and limited as the band’s voice-guitar-drums format is, Pottymouth provides musical as well as conceptual thrills.
Sometimes the Brats just aren’t in control—something they don’t seem to mind especially—but it’s remarkable how much they accomplish with just Erin Smith’s twangy guitar, Molly Neumann’s basic drumming, and Alison Wolfe’s shrill, confrontational (yet occasionally pretty despite itself) singing. On songs like “Bitch Theme” and “Kiss & Ride,” Smith achieves a rumble that’s implacably primal, while Wolfe rivals Björk’s bird-language whoops on “Panik” (an erotic ode to “the Joanest Jett around”). This music makes an invigorating virtue out of not knowing anything more than you absolutely have to.
Combining high-school attitude (“Cool Schmool”) with an ironic critique of rock-star posturing, Bratmobile can unleash a hilariously incompetent version of the Runaways’ jailbait anthem, “Cherry Bomb” (“I’m the fox you’ve been waiting for”), and self-mockingly boast (in “Queenie”) that “hip kids know where to go/I’m the one who tells them so.” The album title refers to the band’s tireless enthusiasm for the word “fuck,” used both in lust (“Juswanna”) and, more frequently, anger (“Fuck Yer Fans,” “Love Thing,” “No You Don’t”). The Brats are just as loose with words like “bitch” and “whore,” though. Pottymouth binges and purges, sometimes with more spunk than sense, through a legacy of misogyny and selfloathing. Gleeful malcontents and bridge-burners—“I don’t wanna hear how many friends you have cuz I don’t have any anymore,” Wolfe gripes/exults in “Cool Schmool”—the Brats are the anti-foxes you’ve been waiting for.
Formally about as radical as the early Bangles, Tiger Trap is an all-women (“all-girl,” says the press release) quartet that hasn’t given up on melody and (most importantly) harmony. “Puzzle pieces, puzzle pieces/We go together just right,” trill Rose, Angela, and Jen (no last names please, we’re anti-pop stars) on Tiger Trap‘s opening song, and they’re singing about true love (they’re always singing about true love) but also about the way their voices fit. Like the best rock ‘n’ roll, Tiger Trap’s music has an organic wholeness.
Young love is an old subject, but it’s always fresh to the young, and that freshness is the appeal of Tiger Trap, about half of whose tunes have previously appeared on singles and compilations. If the band’s sexual politics sometimes seem rather retro (well, they are from Sacramento), the message of the music is that retro is endlessly updateable: All that’s required is high spirits and good tunes.
The album provides both, rushing through 12 songs in 30 minutes and not slowing down till the last one, a serene hymn to the perfect guy, “Prettiest Boy,” that the Shangri-Las just wouldn’t understand: “He looks like a girl/But I know he’s a boy.” (No “Leader of the Pack” for these post-feminist romantics.) Only “Tore a Hole”—in which the Tigers prove that they can play well enough to attempt an instrumental, but not that they should—delays the forward progress of this album, which hurtles like the Ramones’ punk express without ever (despite the rugged guitars of songs like “Eight Wheels”) sounding very punk.
As such songs as “My Broken Heart” reveal, infatuation is not always so perfect or intoxicating as a glorious guitar riff. Despite all its love talk, though, Tiger Trap offers surer pleasures than true romance; a put-down of a duplicitous Other Woman like “For Sure” (which vows that “I’d rather be without you/Than be anything like her,” a do-gooder transfiguration of a classic catty girl-group sentiment) seems beside the point. Like boys-band bonding devices from the church-choir harmonies of the Beach Boys to the football-club unison chants of the Clash, Tiger Trap’s stratospheric harmonies express the sisterly solidarity of the rock band as an ideal mini-society. And that’s better than the prettiest boy.