This Toronto combo, formed in 1983 and presaging the riot grrrl movement by quite a few years, is notable not only for its incisive political edge (a heady combination of feminist and lesbian-rights activism) but also for its grasp of the pop side of the agit-pop equation. While there’s no mistaking the anger seething beneath the surface of the group’s music, the spoonful of sugar Fifth Column secretes in the nooks and crannies helps its medicine go down in the most pogoably delightful way.
On To Sir With Hate, the band flutters between Slits-styled minimalism and primitive Farfisa-saturated garage-pop-even going so far as to throw in a few flamenco licks on the insistent “Kangaroo Court.” While unfailingly thought-provoking — particularly on drummer-cum-guitarist (and noted film-maker) Gloria Berlin Jones’ darker compositions — the album ultimately falls victim to overly antiseptic production that blunts its punch considerably.
By the time the reconfigured lineup — which saw stalwarts Jones, guitarist Charlotte Briede and vocalist Caroline Azar augmented by bassist Beverly Breckenridge — recorded All-Time Queen of the World, they’d sussed out a more appropriate energy level. Although still alinear enough to weave cowpunk riffing, roller-rink organ and massed drill-team chants into (mostly) coherent songs, the quartet waxes punkier than before on raucous tracts like “She Goes Boom.” But what really sets Fifth Column apart is the ease with which it imparts a beguiling bubblegum tang to innocently sexy songs like the breezy “It’s Science Friction.”
At first, the mixture of doe-eyed eroticism and guerrilla-art screeds that imbues 36C (recorded as a Briede-less trio, with guest guitarist Michelle Breslin and Torry Colichio of Kickstand drumming on four songs) makes for a bit of cognitive dissonance. But it only takes a few listens to reconcile the powerful anti-patriarchal sentiments of songs like “Don’t” with the equally emphatic lustiness of “Donna” (a paean to longtime compadre Donna Dresch of Team Dresch, who plays on the LP). As a lyricist, Azar addresses some important issues — “M.O.V.E.,” for instance, decries the loss of sisterhood that accompanies “growing up.” But unlike some of her more po-faced peers, she laces her allegories with a healthy amount of biting humor, as evidenced by the sneering, anthemic “All Women are Bitches: Repeat!” Who says the sexual revolution is over?