Kill Rock Stars has come a long way in the last 15 years. During the early ‘90s, almost every act on the label’s roster played amateurish, discordant punk with a feminist bent. Nowadays, KRS’ sonic palette is wide enough to accommodate everything from electro-pop to quiet singer/songwriters to psychedelic jam bands. The label has grown so much that founder Slim Moon has even had to start a sister label, 5 Rue Christine, to house wilder, more experimental bands. I get the feeling that the addition of Shoplifting to the KRS roster is Moon’s way of extending an olive branch to purists who feel that his label has strayed too far from its original aesthetic. This Seattle quartet’s brilliant debut album Body Stories draws lines that connect the past with the present. Their music hearkens back to the “death disco” of Sonic Youth’s early ‘80s work, but their lyrics find new ways to explore the issues that angered the original “riot grrls.”
Body Stories may be the first rock record I’ve heard that examines feminism from a male perspective in a manner that avoids both easy guilt and cheap novelty. Most of the vocals are sung by guitarist Chris Pugmire, whose double-tracked mewling could be mistaken for Thurston Moore’s. Opener “M. Sally” (the “M.” stands for “mustang”) is a clever slice of rock and roll revisionism. Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” is a loose woman whom the man sets out to tame; Chris’ “M. Sally,” on the other hand, ends up dominating HIM. “Mustang Sally holds my hips,” he sings, “to keep my feet from bruising.” On the next track, “Male Gynecology,” Chris sings about freeing himself from traditional gender roles: “Finally gonna own my body/Open wide for my own gynecology/There’s no shame if the self-exam’s bloody.” On closer “Claude Glass,” drummer Hannah Billie makes a rare lead vocal appearance to sketch a tale of manipulation in which she has the upper hand: “I knew you wouldn’t hurt me/I didn’t make it easy/A wrinkled bill on my thigh/From your hand to mine.”
Shoplifting has an intimate relationship with atonality. Chris’ and Devin’s jangling guitars are always slightly out of tune with one another, and bassist Melissa Lock’s simple lines rarely feel the need to harness them into consonance. On “Male Gynecology,” the guitarists mute their strings to sound like pizzicato strings, and the dissonance in their playing infuses the song with a sense of dread one would expect from the soundtrack of a horror flick. Entire songs sound as if the musicians are playing and singing in different keys simultaneously, of which the Erase Errata-like “Untrust/Trust” is the biggest example. Not only that, but the band doesn’t always organize their songs around a central hook. “Cover to Cover” and “What About a Word?” are through-composed songs that switch tempo and key at will. This isn’t to say that the band is afraid of melody or structure. Every song is girded by a busy, danceable rhythm courtesy of Hannah Billie, and “Claude Glass” boasts a jazzy ascending guitar riff that’s surprisingly easy to hum.
Although Shoplifting takes its biggest musical cues from the No Wave scene of two decades ago, they play with a steadiness that many of the band’s influences were too reckless (and, in some cases, not talented enough) to achieve. Their chemistry is so strong that even the meandering quasi-instrumental jams that they pad the album with (“Flying Factory,” “Syncope Riders”) are fun to listen to. Congratulations, Shoplifting: you’re responsible for Kill Rock Stars’ first great release of 2006.
Artist Website: www.myspace.com/shoplifting
Label Website: www.killrockstars.com