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The Boston Phoenix Quiet Riots

The Girls From The North[west] Country

By Joan Anderman

NOVEMBER 3, 1997:  Navigating the action at Ryles in Inman Square a couple of weeks ago was a surreal experience. Downstairs, upscale couples nursing cocktails swayed in their seats to gentle bossa nova. Upstairs, a swarming mass of girls rocked to dyke-pop trio the Lookers' love song for track star Wilma Rudolph. I dig a Brazilian beat, but listening to the Lookers is like hanging out with your coolest guitar-strumming pals who put on awesome impromptu sets in the school courtyard. Whether they're dedicated to the art of artlessness or just can't the hell play, the Portland (Oregon) trio's good-natured, scruffy pop noise thrives on the aesthetic of anti-cultivation. Especially live. Bad notes go better with personality, and guitarists Sarah Dougher and Alison Carr and drummer STS are articulate, ebullient, and sweet as the hook-drenched tunes on their debut CD, In Clover (Candy-Ass).

"We have cheap, shitty guitars, but they match!", Dougher exclaimed after retuning for the tenth time, and everybody smiled -- the idea that having big old crappy matching guitars is just as tantalizing in the Lookers' artistic cosmos as, say, harmonizing in tune or playing in the pocket might be in another. Bass is one more rock-band convention that's besides the point for the Lookers (as it is for their more prominent colleagues Sleater-Kinney). Carr picked out stream-of-consciousness low tones on her electric Kay from time to time, and sprightly drummer STS supplied nuance and dynamic with a few judiciously timed whacks to her cowbell.

As for the opening set, it's hard to reconcile the meek, awkward Kaia who played ringing acoustic guitar and sang tough, beautiful folk rock with the blistering punk slinger who until last year was singer/guitarist for Olympia's pioneering lesbian rock band, Team Dresch. But "Test," an austere medical metaphor for failed communication, and the quiet, pained "No Sides," from her Kaia solo CD on Candy-Ass, pulsed with the edge and intensity of a hardcore tune, stripped only of decibels and distortion. Melissa, Kaia's bandmate, bashed her pared-down drum kit in such an exaggerated, robotic frenzy that it would have been absurdly funny if she hadn't embodied so scathing a one-woman rhythm section. Omnipresent melody, which even Team Dresch never sacrificed to the clamor, approached buoyant, Indigos-style heights on "16," an ode to youthful romanticism. Like the Lookers, Kaia blazes a poetic, analytical path through toppled romances, fractured feelings, yearning, self-loathing -- the emotional works -- with an offhanded, blasé sort of grace. But her songs, for all their spare beauty and simmering flame, are complex, meticulously drawn compositions -- whether amped to the max or stripped to the bones.

Kaia (who has a new disc due this January) and the Lookers are both part of the Pacific Northwest's vibrant lesbian music community. With Sleater-Kinney and Team Dresch (minus Kaia) leading the way, these vehemently activist artists are spinning the region's firmly entrenched, hardcore girl culture into a radical queer culture, mixing the dyke metal of a grungy band like Tribe 8 with punk, pop, and folk and turning it into a post-grunge, post-riot grrrl Northwest scene. At the epicenter of the burgeoning "lesbionics" (a Dreschian term) are two record labels: Chainsaw and Candy-Ass, established respectively by Team Dresch's Donna Dresch and bandmate Jody Bleyle; between them they've put out records by a couple dozen artists and bands. On this coast, Boston native and self-described satellite-dish-for-the-arts Tinuviel -- who co-founded the groundbreaking Kill Rock Stars label in 1990, while living in Olympia -- has been booking Chainsaw/Candy-Ass artists in a rather random series of all-ages, girl-centric shows at the Middle East, the Zeitgeist Gallery, Ryles, and Bad Girls Studios, an artists' loft in Jamaica Plain. (The futuristic squall duo the Need, a Chainsaw act from Olympia, will be at Ryles this Saturday.)

"I guess I have a certain aesthetic, a non-club kind of club thing," explains Tinuviel, who also runs a Boston record label called Villa Villakula -- named after the house that the brashly independent children's literary heroine Pippi Longstocking lived in. "I'm interested in pulling together whatever's new and different. The Lookers are very Olympia. We just don't have bands like that here, with that sort of living-room rock sound. There is a strong queer-music community in Boston, but it's still pretty folky and '70s. The Northwest has an incredible openness and sense of experimentation."

Dyke rock may not be a contender for Next Big Thing status. (Kaia's "Go Back to Your Boyfriend" won't, it's safe to say, play in Peoria.) But, as ever, it's the distance from the status quo that makes this new wave of adventurous music from the still-fertile Northwest a pleasure to discover. Where else could a music fan have witnessed the first, and probably last, performance of the spontaneously formed Cambridge Lesbian Chorus?

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