After the onslaught of comparatively more adventurous signings that Kill Rock Stars has acquired over the last couple of years (Decemberists, Amps for Christ, the Paper Chase, Gold Chains), the most surprising thing about Shoplifting’s self-titled debut EP is that it’s such a throwback to the aesthetics of classic early-’90s KRS. The artwork is full of hand-drawn faces, handmade collages, and liner notes typed intentionally badly. Each member of the coed band is identified by first name only, with no clues given as to who plays what. The music is deliberately arty punk that prizes immediacy and intensity over actual musicianship. The lyrics address the dynamics of sexual oppression, often choosing to subvert them by letting males sing from traditionally “female“ perspectives (and vice versa). The liner notes are accompanied by a second-person narrative about a man who tries to hang himself after being violated by a woman. Last but not least, the EP was recorded and engineered by a member of another KRS band (in this case, ex-Unwound alumnus Justin Trosper), continuing the tradition of incestuous DIY communalism. Consider Shoplifting the new physical vessels of the wandering ghost of Bikini Kill, long after Kathleen Hanna abandoned punk for the greener pastures of kitschy synth-pop.
The EP’s first song, “L.O.V.E.,” begins with a hissing dance-punk rhythm and stuttering guitars that sound like the guitarists’ fingers are caught in between the strings and can’t be yanked out. The female vocalist lets her voice wander from the sexy speak/singing of Kim Gordon to the bilious screaming of Courtney Love and all points in between. No respecter of grammar, she chastises “men without morals/she without heart,“ asserts that she’s “tired of moderate/tired of tolerate,” and finally urges to listener to undress AND fight. Second track “Raw Nails Now” demands the immediate dismantling of the social patriarchy in graphic and evocative language: “Section out of my prick in poles/Scrape out cum and violence.” It ends with the male singer screaming “Scratch it out!” in his best Thurston Moore voice, as if he’s getting off on the pain of castration. None of the instruments play in the same key as each other, which renders the music just as willfully abrasive as the lyrics.
Track three, “Ask Me,” is a self-described “role reversal” in which both singers reenact a rape, with the female as the aggressor (“Well, he’s a fast man…”) and the male as the victim (“You came into my room/You put your knees into my back”). If the lyrics don’t make you queasy, the guitarists will by bending their strings to produce long streams of feedback that resemble the sound of tugboats. The final song, “Contrapuntal Prancing,” revisits the dissonant dance-punk of the first song and serves as the closest thing to an anthem on the EP. “Let’s cut my white male privvies,” the singers chant in unison, “and why not your privvies too?” In this song, dancing is portrayed as an act of rebellion from the patriarchy (“twist feminist and pogo anarcho!”). It’s not exactly a new idea, even to those who aren’t familiar with classic KRS. Then again, nothing on this EP is. I once read an article that suggested that Shoplifting’s political worldview could be whittled down to the phrase “rock not rape, dude.” While I definitely see where the writer was coming from, we can all agree that in the era of Kobe Bryant, “rock not rape, dude” is still a message needs
Besides, I’ve always said that if you’re good enough, you don’t necessarily NEED to be original. Fortunately, most of the time Shoplifting are good enough. At their best, they sound like snippets from Sonic Youth‘s Sonic Death album rearranged into slightly more digestible songs. At their worst, they sound like a band whose rhythm section showed up to the studio prepared to play, but whose guitarists forgot their parts as soon as the tape started rolling. Fortunately, these moments rarely last for more than a couple of seconds as a time. Songs that initially sound like three separate ideas haphazardly stitched together gain coherence upon further listens as patterns and links begin to emerge. For instance, the slow and sloppy coda of “Raw Nails Now” sounds so different from the fast and raucous intro that it took me four listens to notice that the singers are repeating the same lyrics in both parts. The music is carefully planned even when it sounds improvised, and although Shoplifting could definitely use a bit more rehearsal, they pull this trick off much better than many other bands of their ilk.
Rock not rape, dude. Bring on the full-length!
Label Website: http://www.killrockstars.com
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