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Kathleen Hanna Throws a Grown-and-Sexy New Wave Dance Party on the Julie Ruin’s ‘Run Fast’

The Julie Ruin / Photo by Aaron Richter for SPIN
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: September 03, 2013
Label: Dischord

What a drag it is, getting old, or so Mick J. thought. But like seemingly every punk of yore, he stuck it out anyway, inspiring a fleet of aging rockers who continue to defiantly reinvent themselves and foist their former teen troubles on us as they breach geriatricism (never trust a punk over 45), turning every music fest into a nostalgia-milkin’, three-chord Antiques Roadshow full of Fuck You Heroes cast in amber. Punx who stick around but dramatically (and logically) evolve as they grow up are scant: Think Ted Leo, Superchunk, or Ian MacKaye (who now shames the audience for texting, not moshing). Fortunately, Kathleen Hanna stands among them, too, with her latest update from Grown-Ass Ladyhood.

Run Fast, her second album under the Julie Ruin banner (the first came out in 1997), was penned amid serious illness — wellness is a perspective shift in itself — and while there are marks of that darkness (“Lookout Lookout,” the tenderness of “Just My Kind”), it offers a kind of casual clarity. It’s kicky, too, listing toward ’60s garage-rock (Sonics, Pretty Things) and early-80’s new wave; while you would never suggest that Hanna was not doing her, here she seems especially free.

These songs are often personal and oblique, pushing against Hanna’s image as a feminist spokeswoman, with an unexpected tact from someone we’ve known as a fire-breather for nigh on two decades. With an expanded lineup for the Julie Ruin — previously her mostly solo side project at Bikini Kill’s end — there are surprises galore, including vocals from keyboardist Kenny Mellman, who provides some Jon Spencer-like counterpoint yowling throughout and takes the lead on the Bongwater-esque “South Coast Plaza.”

That there are duets — dialogues, really — here at all says something about where Hanna’s head is at: She’s mostly set aside the band-as-party-organ mouthpiece approach and now simply relishes the fun of making music with friends. Though it’s been more than 15 years since the first Julie Ruin record, this sophomore effort dovetails from it naturally — Run Fast is a manic new-wave delight from a grown-up party band.

The album’s heart lies in “Just My Kind,” a piano-plonking wisp of doo-wop (mixed by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy) that doesn’t name names, though its kisses are obviously blown toward Hanna’s romantic partner, Ad-Rock. It nods to teen girl-group pledges of undying devotion, but detours into a mature, intellectual, two-way kind of fealty when she sings, “You know my mind.” Perhaps, having expended a ton of legacy-minded grief into the building of a Riot Grrrl archive that documents her substantial work in that world, Hanna now wants to offer us a different kind of liberation: joy and love as the flipside to impassioned dialectic. That’s what 40 gets you, suffering no fools and acknowledging that life is not just the fight.

Still, on “The Kids in New York,” she sings of punks doing all the things we knew her for in the old days — “making feminist fanzines” and “making bands with broken amps” — and it’s not so much a passing of the torch as a space-making acknowledgement when she adds, “There’s still a lot to say.” It’s a rebuttal to the last few years of Riot Grrrl nostalgia and the first wave of serious documentation devoted to the radical feminist-punk movement. People see her as an icon, partly because of her history, and partly because there are not a lot of women of that era still visible in pop culture (see also: Carrie Brownstein). She’s a reminder that the power of Riot Grrrl is still there, that we should actively look for it and refine what it should be now, rather than simply rehash what it was.

To that end, Run Fast is certainly more benevolent and interesting than the myopic records most people make post-40 about their changing place in the world. Luckily, Hanna herself still has a lot to say — and sing and scream, too.