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Punk rock may have finally pogoed its way into the Billboard Top 10, but something even more interesting has happened to the loud-short-fast style since the Sex Pistols broke up: Punk has become the accepted mode for oppressed and subcultural groups throughout the Anglo-American sphere of influence. There are Basque- and Welsh-language punk bands, and, closer to home, “queercore” bands like Team Dresch and Pansy Division.
As members of a new, confrontational generation, the members of the latter aren’t worried that they’ll be found out as gay; the shocking thing would be if any Pansy listener—even the barely pubescent punkers who saw the San Francisco trio opening for Green Day—failed to figure it out. The Pansies are uptight about one thing, though, and it’s revealed by a close reading of the liner notes to the band’s new Pile Up, a 20-song collection of tracks from singles, EPs, and compilation albums. “This is probably as campy as we get,” writes a band member (principal Pansy singer/songwriter Jon Ginoli, presumably) of the version of “Jackson,” the 1967 Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazelwood hit; “this is also as close as we ever get to showtunes…not very!” insists the note-writer of “C.S.F.,” a rewrite of a tune from Hair.
As the Clash proved, it’s possible to attach angry, meaningful lyrics to breakneck punk songs. It’s a trick Ginoli hasn’t mastered, though. No matter how much the Pansies declare their independence from the Judy Garland generation, the band is fundamentally a cabaret act. A song like “Bill and Ted’s Homosexual Adventure” borrows the riff from the early Mekons’ “Where Were You,” but as soon as Ginoli starts singing, he’s on Broadway. And such bouncy instructional tunes as “Ring of Joy” (about the erotic possibilities of the anal sphincter), “Strip U Down” (about the erotic possibilities of going slow), about “Homo Christmas” (about the unerotic reality of Xmas with the folks) sound like they were designed for the gay-sex equivalent of Sesame Street.
That’s why Pile Up is the Pansies’ best album. Ginoli only wrote or co-wrote eight of the 20 songs (one with bassist Chris Freeman, the band’s onstage propagandist), which means the Pansies spend the rest of the time playing songs by better songwriters (gay, straight, and undecided) like Liz Phair, Prince, Bob Mould, Lou Reed, Bryan Ferry, and Kurt Cobain. When claiming songs as epochal as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (as “Smells Like Queer Spirit,” of course) or as farcical as Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom,” the Pansies can concentrate on their agenda and let someone else’s song do the rest of the work. Ginoli only manages a full head of ideological steam when he’s riding a tune like “Spirit,” whose “No denial!/Jesse Helms on trial!” refrain concludes the album on a more fervent note than the band has ever hit by itself.
A few vigorous chord changes and feedback squeals don’t make the Pansies punk-rock shock troops, and Pile Up rarely surges as energetically as, say, the Buzzcocks. Indeed, the band seems quite comfortable in the company of the neo-wimp anti-rockers of K Records: Ginoli trades lines with K mogul/Beat Happening frontman Calvin Johnson on “Jackson,” and the album includes a cover of the Happening’s much covered “love-rock” standard, “Cry Like a Shadow,” a song with which Judy Garland probably wouldn’t have been uncomfortable. The lyrics of songs like “Fuck Buddy” might strike Jesse Helms as seditious, but at heart the Pansies are love-rockers.
Unlike a lot of grunge and neopsychedelic bands, who trade in evocations of disgust or bliss that probably benefit from being indistinct, both Pansy Division and Team Dresch offer lyric sheets with their albums. Only the latter’s Personal Best really needs it, though. A heady, overloaded attack of sweet-and-sour (and often buried in the mix) vocals and folkie and buzz-saw guitars, songs like “Growing Up in Springfield” and “She’s Crushing My Mind” don’t feature the clean enunciation of the Pansies. Less polemical and more personal than song titles like“Fagetarian and Dyke” and “Hate the Christian Right” suggest, the lyrics are worth following, for both their passion and their humor.
Impressionistic and genuine, such rural-teen-ager reminiscences as “When I was sixteen/She said to me/You have a demon possession/I said what the fuck does that mean” summon worlds in a handful of unpolished, evocative words. What really commends such lines, though, is the way they fit into these headlong yet shapely songs. Like the most bracing of punk rockers, Team Dresch (named for guitarist/bassist Donna Dresch) never sounds too organized, dancing on the edge of structural collapse without ever taking the fall. The Pacific Northwest quartet’s sound doesn’t directly resemble the Raincoats’—where the latter’s melodies veer toward the folkie, the former’s guitars reveal an adolescent acquaintance with heavy metal—but both cannily balance crude execution and sophisticated arrangements, consonance and dissonance, silence and sound.
Best naturally recalls the female insurgences of the late ’70s and early ’80s, but there’s no direct evidence that the Team knows the Slits, Delta 5, and the rest. The album includes several songs about female role models, but the only one named is Sinéad O’Connor, who’s analyzed with some skepticism in “1 Chance Pirate TV.” (“Sometimes it feels alright/Like when you tear up a picture of the pope,” the song concludes.) And if singers Kaia Kangaroo and Jody Coyote are frankly awestruck by the unidentified feminist speaker they extol in “She’s Amazing,” they’re also candid enough to admit a debt to Morrissey. (“I spent the last ten days of my life/Not getting any sleep…/I spent the last ten days of my life/Searching for you…/I spent the last ten days of my life/Ripping off the Smiths,” sings Kangaroo in “Fagetarian and Dyke.”)
Savvy social commentators that they are, the Team members take on Hollywood rather than Helms. “They tested their limits—and broke all the rules,” brags the legend on the back cover, an ad-campaign tagline borrowed from the iffy Robert Towne film about lesbian track stars that also provides the album title. Aside from its delirious musicality and sheer drive, such authoritative claims are what distinguishes this album. Team Dresch can appropriate anything it wants, from the country rock of “Freewheel” to a major-studio slogan. That’s why Personal Best is compelling on a whole different level than Pile Up; unlike Pansy Division, Team Dresch makes the medium inseparable from the message.