For a band that wasn’t even supposed to be a band, Le Tigre got off to a great start. Comprised of ex-Bikini Kill leader Kathleen Hanna, zinemaker Johanna Fateman and video artist Sadie Benning (who left in 2000 to continue her film career and was replaced by JD Samson), the Brooklyn-based trio gathered initially to perform Hanna’s sample-heavy lo-fi electronic album, Julie Ruin, live. But chemistry called, and the three soon moved on to the politically charged, B52s-esque dance songs that became Le Tigre’s fantastic debut album. But that evidently expended all their inspiration: Le Tigre has never made good on that promise and eventually resorted to the same bland new-wave redux — with watered down politics, to boot — employed by such yawnful gimmicks as Fischerspooner.
None of that, however, can overshadow the power of Le Tigre. From Hanna’s first scream on “Deceptacon” to the last blips of “Les and Ray,” this is a firecracker of an album, spitting out sharp-tongued, politically savvy songs with a sense of humor unknown in Hanna’s previous work. “My My Metrocard” makes no bones about calling Rudy Giuliani “a fucking jerk,” but it’s exclaimed over a Nancy Sinatra-esque go-go rhythm. The scathing call-out of boring (read: commercial) bands on “Deceptacon” is done by way of “Who took the bomp from the bompalompalomp / Who took the ram from the ramalamading dong.” Even the failed feminist utopia in “Phanta” is explained by a series of robotic metaphors; it’s all coy, witty and infectious. It doesn’t matter that the instrumentation is electronically naïve; the combination of simple beats, cheap samples and dirty guitar riffs is so catchy, so utterly off-kilter, that it stops mattering whether anyone in the band really grasps how to program a drum machine. Besides, as discussed in the four-to-the-floor stomp of “Let’s Run,” even Hanna, Fateman and Benning realize their fate isn’t sealed: “Oh, we could rock / Or we could bomb / Or we could try / Like super hard.”
But trying super hard is only really effective when the efforts appear to be, well, effortless. Every effort on Feminist Sweepstakes is glaring; that sound you hear is a band struggling to live up to its hype. Co-produced by Chris Stamey and introducing Samson, the album is a conceptual mess of ’70s pseudo-funk, ’80s electronica and early ’90s hip-hop, all filtered through a punk lens. A unique mish-mash, perhaps, but it sounds contrived on execution. Though a few tracks boast arrangements far more sophisticated than those on Le Tigre (“Fake French,” “Tres Bien”), the whole thing reeks of a desperate and charmless attempt to cash in on the quirkiness that made their first album so great. The guileless electronics sound forced, and the guitar riffs drip with laziness. And forget that coy sense of humor; the lyrics are whiny, pretentious and mildly pedantic. Songs like “My Art” and “Tres Bien” attempt to summon “Deceptacon”-style social criticism but instead end up alienating the listener with elitist one-liners like “you’re a post-modern parasite” and “my art is better than your art.” True eye-rolling stuff, the lot of it. In fact, the only good thing about Feminist Sweepstakes is one line from the otherwise forgettable “TGIF”: “You know, all my friends are fucking bitches / Best known for burning bridges.” And while that’s definitely a laugh-out-loud moment, one funny line does not a good, or even listenable, album make.
Le Tigre then brought in producer Nicolas Sansano, who has worked with Sonic Youth, Public Enemy and Bell Biv DeVoe to put together This Island, the trio’s major-label debut. It worked a little: the results are (barely) listenable. Strip away the trendiness of the thing, and it’s simply an overproduced, underwritten piece of ’80s nostalgia, complete with a lackluster cover of the Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited.” It’s not surprising that the band would move in this trendy direction; Le Tigre has always been hip to John Hughes chic (“V.G.I.,” the second track on Julie Ruin, is an acronym for Valley Girl Intelligentsia). What is surprising, though, is how bland, how absolutely vanilla, the resulting product is. There’s not a shred of personality here; it’s just a batch of par-for-the-course, retro new-wave dance songs, the vast majority of which omit the band’s previously uncompromising feminist agenda. Songs like “Viz,” “This Island” and “Nanny Nanny Boo Boo” move along at a predictable pace, with predictable changes and predictable let’s-just-have-fun lyrics. The only saving grace is the Ric Ocasek produced “Tell You Now,” which is not only the shining star of This Island but also of Le Tigre’s entire career. Reminiscent of Suicide (who Ocasek also worked with), the track shows Hanna to be not just a screamy girl with a ponytail (her chosen image for the majority of This Island) but rather a thoughtful, mature woman with a hell of a voice. Which begs the question: could Ocasek have ripped This Island from the drowning pool? Based on “Tell You Now,” absolutely.