It's 2001: Do you know where Kathleen Hanna is? While Bikini Kill records have come to evoke that wincing feeling usually only experienced while reading old diary entries, the woman who gave the Sassy crowd a role model and Sharpie a second wind moved to New York a few years ago and met the right end of a sequencer. Since then, the results have been mixed: 1998's Julie Ruin (her erstwhile pseudonym) record, a hit-and-miss Casio-tone chronicle of late '90s political frustration and pop-feminist betrayal and 1999's Le Tigre, an unexpectedly excellent record made by the band assembled to back up Ruin's same old song. Le Tigre's strength lies in the varied voices, both musically and idealistically; the additional members, writer Johanna Fateman and filmmaker Sadie Benning, are both accomplished urban iconoclasts. Le Tigre's debut hit hardest when the arcane beats of the simplistic synth and stray guitar riffs accompanied lyrics that spoke ambivalently yet most immediately. "My Metrocard" assaulted Rudy Giuliani's welfare policies and smacked of cosmopolitan doubt, while "What's Yr Take on Cassavettes" and "Hot Topic" questioned the revered with chants of "Misogynist! Genius! Alcoholic! Messiah!" and venerated obscure and obvious pioneers, ranging from Vaginal Creme Davis to Billie Jean King.
The flip side to this fearlessness, as is apparent on From the Desk of Mr. Lady, is old-school arrogance. Following the pleasingly infectious first track--"Get Off the Internet," a cry for a new wave of old-fashioned activism--"Bang! Bang!" is a reaction to the Amadou Diallo murder (and acquittal of the four NYPD perps), and it recalls Bikini Kill at its worst. When Hanna shrieks, "There is no fucking way this is not about race," coupled with the audience-participation conclusion of counting to 41 (as in the number of shots fired), it seems self-congratulatory, if not outright irresponsible.
With the exception of "Bang! Bang!," the material is so catchy and smart musically that it recalls those other New York amateurs, the Beastie Boys (an awfully gauche comparison, considering Hanna's personal side project, Ad-Rock). Still, there's no truly engaging moment or quotable chorus on From the Desk of Mr. Lady, a departure from the stronghold of Hanna's previous records. Instead, Mr. Lady wins when it grooves, and several tracks offer much more in that area than in the way of content. The seven-track EP features only four new songs; the remaining tracks are a remix of "All that Glitters" from Le Tigre and the B-side tracks of an import single. The recycled tracks fare well: "Yr Critique" is offhandedly right on, confident without arrogance, vulnerable without affected weakness. "I think you're pretty smart, but you act like such a jerk," drones the song's narrator, covered in synthetic noise. And later: "They want us to make a symphony out of the sound of women swallowing their own tongues." It's an artful and deadpan take on the media's stunted version of Third Wave Feminism.
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Worldly and articulate, uncompromising yet aware of its limitations, Le Tigre is clearly not the new Bikini Kill, nor is it trying to be. Political pop and feminist electronic music are not its monopoly. While Hanna beams from adoring features in Ms., and Le Tigre chats with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air, it's clear that this sound isn't the spawn of a charismatic, media-seasoned individual but of a clamor of voices. The mangled Cathy cartoon on the disc label reads, "In seeking specific technical information, we discover that behind the hysteria of male expertise lies the magic world of our unmade art." In short, look further.