The flaw in most ’70s punk bands was their lack of true commitment to chaos. It took ’90s riot grrrls like the belligerent tease that was Bratmobile to show oldtimers how to fall together and fall apart with equal conviction. Singer Allison Wolfe, drummer Molly Neuman and guitarist Erin Smith made their daredevil punk debut in the summer of ’91 at K Records’ International Pop Underground convention in Olympia, Washington and spent the next three years ruffling indie-rock feathers (mostly via 45s) with calamitous minimalism and the id-ful caterwauling of Wolfe’s blunt, often antagonistic, lyrics.
Although it sounds like the efforts of one rowdy afternoon, Pottymouth was recorded in ’91 and ’92 (the bandmembers’ geographical dispersion — California, Olympia and Maryland — was always a problem). Mustering 17 songs, including a relatively protracted bash at the Runaways’ seminal “Cherry Bomb,” in under a half-hour, the album is like a slap in the face: it’s over before you realize what you’re feeling but its sting lasts a good long while. Spewed out in the simplest, rawest manner possible, the songs’ conflicting emotions have the unfocused frenzy of adolescence: lust one minute, spite the next, anger at enemies and self, jealousy, disdain, fitting in, standing out. Between the demanding sexuality of “Juswanna (FUK U.)” and “P.R.D.C.T.” (Punk Rock Dream Come True) and the confrontational rancor of “Bitch Theme,” “Love Thing” and “Fuck Yr. Fans,” however, Bratmobile has a charming way with silly love songs, revealing a softer side in “Queenie,” “Kiss and Ride” (aka “Fuck and Ride”) and the troubled “Throway.” Best scene trope (from “Cool Schmool”): “I don’t want to sit around and talk about the Wipers / Weren’t those the good ole days.”
Raising its musical skills to the next level (more of a mezzanine than a genuine second stage), Bratmobile cut six songs, including a cover of the Misfits’ crudely defensive “Where Eagles Dare” (with vocals by Kill Rock Stars head/Olympia poet-in-residence Slim Moon), for the twelve-minute The Real Janelle. The title track is an upbeat cheer (“Janelle, Janelle, she’s so swell!”); other songs are either hard (“Brat Girl,” a murderous revenge fantasy about the infamous Spur Posse), unhinged (“Die,” in which death is both the alternative to friendship and the test of love), Oedipal (“And I Live in a Town Where the Boys Amputate Their Hearts,” which announces “I can’t go home again / But I’m still a good tax break”) or winsomely mild (Neuman’s “Yeah, Huh?”).
The 2000 reunion album makes a case for Bratmobile’s ability to transcend amateurishness without abandoning the unfettered emotional freedom that came with it. In songs of newfound complexity, the instrumentation and (to a lesser degree) singing (if not the tinny production) are, in a positive sense, less noticeable. But the wry boy-girl-etc. vituperation is still in full effect, as Wolfe declares “You’re Fired” and uses a rock icon as the means for a clever personal attack: “Don’t write a song about it, just give me back my Cheap Trick record.” But growing up doesn’t mean giving in. Even the romantic songs (“Come Hither,” “In Love With All My Lovers,” “Do You Like Me Like That?”) have the threat of disappointment and vengeance lurking around the corner. Sex and the City never said as much about modern women as this.
For a clear blast of the Brat, try the BBC broadcast, which dates from July ’93. Playing exceptionally well (perhaps because of the presence of an actual producer), the unexpectedly tight trio rips through five songs, including “Bitch Theme” and “Make Me Miss America,” in under nine minutes.
Neuman went on to drum and sing in the Peechees, who released their debut album, Do the Math, in 1996. She later co-owned Lookout! Records (prompting that label’s Queers to write a mean song about her) and then became a chef and caterer. Wolfe and Smith formed a band called Cold Cold Hearts.