"Womyn's music" pioneers Alix Dobkin and Cris Williamson strummed their way into Sapphic infamy as part of a separatist movement. Back in the 1970s, these women wrote their own songs, ran their own labels, and mounted their own festivals. Twenty years later, the Rhino compilation Lesbian Favorites: Women Like Us merely nods at those foremothers before making a truly '90s, chain-store friendly affirmation: Lesbian music is not just hip, now, and wow -- it's totally non-threatening.
As an indicator of what today's lesbian is listening to, Rhino's selection is as subjective as the title suggests. Another curator's track list might just as easily contain Tribe 8, Nico, or David Bowie. However on Lesbian Favorites, Rhino's interested in commercially viable pop and folk; and a k.d. lang tune dons the mainstream mantle far more easily than Team Dresch. But this just creates a new contradiction: Visible lesbianism loses its confrontational potential when it's attached to disposable synth-pop like Fem 2 Fem's "Obsession" -- not to mention to cover models who, despite sharing a smoochy moment over a book of nature photography and some herbal tea, look about as interested in each other as Catharine MacKinnon and Pamela Lee.
Fine. Next point: Does lesbianism gain power by operating from within an established structure? Not on this compilation. With the exception of Ani DiFranco's "In or Out," which explicitly addresses sexual politics, the 18 tracks on Lesbian Favorites aim more for the campfire sing-along than the pride parade. Nobody's asking for the aural equivalent of Rubyfruit Jungle, but "Me and you, you and me, we can see/ Simple reality" from the band Betty's funk-thrash tune "A Typical Love" doesn't even make the effort -- and that's the least banal lyric. Why bother with coyness or ambiguity on a record that already has the word "lesbian" in the title? It's not like anyone who's buying it is going to be shocked.
That said, the record contains a few surprises: Former MTV Lycra diva Taylor Dayne's "I'll Be Your Shelter," for example, sounds damned soulful the second time around. Conversely, Jill Sobule's revoltingly perky "I Kissed a Girl" is even more torturous than it was three years ago. And finally, lang's contribution, the chugging, flute-infused "Just Keep Me Moving," sounds as if it was separated at birth from the soundtrack to The Wiz.
But Lesbian Favorites is as much about the music that's not included as the music that is. The world of lesbian-created music is nearly as broad as pop music itself. All this record has is hints of that spectrum. Phranc and Gretchen Phillips (who appears here both solo and with 2 Nice Girls), for instance, both come from a post-punk era that preceded current queercore bands, but their contributions to Lesbian Favorites barely reflect it. Phranc's ukulele-fied cover of Herman's Hermits' "Mrs. Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter" is as twee as the original, and Phillips' "Swimming" veers from folk to rock to Zappa-esque spoken-word parody for its finale, wherein Phillips awkwardly attempts to lure a pierced street kid named Brandy home for a quickie.
The liner notes apologize for the omission of Big Pop Lesbians like Melissa Etheridge and the Indigo Girls. But, you know, if they hadn't brought it up, I wouldn't have noticed -- what's missing here isn't the more commercial, blander stuff, just the edgier artists who made the rest of it possible. But then, the point of Lesbian Favorites is that classics and favorites aren't necessarily the same thing.
-- Andi Zeisler
June of 44
Four Great Points
According to the members of the ambient art-rock quartet June of 44, this album is the "weirdest thing [they] have ever done." In the course of recording these songs, band members claim to have "left our bodies behind and looked down on the goings on in the room."
Uh huh. Well, it's spacey. And it's trippy. But, it's not an out-of-body experience, just, um, the weirdest thing these post-emocore indie rockers have crafted in their four-year life span.
Somewhat an indie-coterie supergroup, June of 44 consists of requisite "ex-members" and "side project" operators. Jeff Mueller is a former guitarist in Rodan, currently string-scraping for the Shipping News. Fellow guitarist Sean Meadows also plays for Louisville indie-go-girls the Sonora Pine. Bassist Fred Erskine slinked for Fugazi-soaked acts Hoover and Crownhate Ruin, and drummer Doug Scharin (ex of Codeine) shares his talents with New York's brittle Rex. Blending these backgrounds and split personalities, June of 44 have created a wiry and wet sound so unique that the group's own pretentious overshoot -- floating around the room while the band plays on -- actually makes sense.
Opening with the murmuring pluck of muffled guitars pioneered by indie-math rock progenitors Slint, June of 44 let a dub-styled rumbling bass creep into the mix and interrupt the web-spinning strings on "Of Information & Belief." As the band milks traditional rock instruments for all their potential weirdness and variety, it establishes the syrupy throb of the album's eight songs.
On "Doomsday" -- apparently titled after the song's cataclysmic guitar skree and fitful Moog-synth noises -- bassist Erskine sets up an infectious dub line framed within ringing guitar harmonics and clanking hand-percussion. Loosely reminiscent of early Public Image Ltd. bassist Jah Wobble's slippery dub, Erskine adds a number of subtle blows to his own bag of tricks.
Entrancing guitars clink out a Middle Eastern-inspired drone to initiate "The Dexterity of Luck"; the rhythm section lunging, loping, then jabbing the urgent fuzzy-phone vocals. Scharin's unique balance of pulsating bass drum and tight, jazzy snare and cymbal work sounds like two separate percussionists at once. Finally, by the album's close, these musical combinations and electronic diversions have nearly liquefied into an enduring and meditative hum whose repetitions seem nearly infinite. Sure, the members of June of 44 force themselves to counteract each other in very clever ways, but they're hardly leaving their bodies behind.
-- Dave Clifford