It's an accusation and a call-to-arms, disguised as a joke: "Who took the bomp from the bomp-ba-bomp-ba-bomp? Who took the ram from the rama-lama-ding-dong?" Le Tigre have turned this oldies catchphrase on its head and, surveying the sorry ashes of the so-called alternative-rock scene, they want some answers. Why does most rock today sound so empty and boring? How did everything get co-opted so quickly?
With its passionate smarts, funky good humor and politicized grooves, New Yorkbased Le Tigre's self-titled debut album flies in the face of much of today's music. Composed of Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna, 'zine scribe Johanna Fateman and video artist Sadie Benning, Le Tigre are a new wavegarage rock band that's both beat smart and sample savvy. Call it what you like, but what it feels like is the first new chapter in punk since riot grrrls.
Le Tigre aren't the first band to mix samples, beats and guitars, but they are the first to use technology in a true punk way. In their hands, found and programmed sounds aren't used to create a slick surface; instead, they're just more raw materials to be mixed with guitar and voice. And, like all the best punk and garage, their ragged collage aesthetic works because it emphasizes emotion and immediate musical kicks over polish. If there can be such a thing as three-chord sampling, Le Tigre are its first virtuosos. "Deceptacon" (RealAudio excerpt) sets the tone for the album with surging keyboards, turntablist breaks and handclaps, all anchored by Kathleen Hanna's always commanding vocals. Hardly just Bikini Kill with loops, Le Tigre throw handfuls of pop music (hip-hop, soul, electro, new wave, etc.) into a blender and chop up everything to fit their needs. They're expertly aided here by co-producer Chris Stamey (of the dBs), who gives the songs a full, nuanced sound without sacrificing raw energy or immediacy. The group's aesthetic is even more apparent on "Hot Topic," which features a funky stutter-beat, girl-group back-up vocals, trumpet and catchy hooks worthy of the B-52s. And when was the last time you heard Gertrude Stein, Nina Simone, the Slits and Angela Davis all mentioned in the same song?
"Oh we could rock/ Or we could bomb," Hanna sings at the beginning of "Let's Run" (RealAudio excerpt), and it's this sense that something is at stake that animates this breathless romp and, indeed, all of the album's best moments. The raging guitars and furious vocals of "The The Empty" work perfectly against the frantic electronic percussion, creating an urgent, rocking groove. "An infectious keyboard funk propels "My My Metrocard" (RealAudio excerpt), a tune that celebrates New York City's subway system while taking Mayor Guiliani to task for his backward social policies.
Le Tigre is not a perfect album. The litany of non sequiturs in "Dude Yr. So Crazy!" verges on monotony, and "What's Yr Take on Cassavettes" ("Genius? Misogynist? Alcoholic? Messiah?") feels a bit precious and pretentious. Still, the weaker moments have enough musical spunk and most crucial are brief enough to serve mainly as pleasant filler between the rest of the varied and usually strong songs. Not only is this one of the more impressive debuts in recent memory, but, best of all, Le Tigre sound like they're just getting started.