Aren't we done talking about gender yet?—A University of Washington professor, September 2004
[It's] fine if you want to talk about it, but do you have to do it here? We just want to have fun.—An acquaintance at brunch two months ago
Questions like these frame the context in which Ms. Led have written their second full-length album. The answers to both questions—which are respectively and emphatically "Not even close" and "Damn right"—are omnipresent on the band's new album, These Things We Say (Fish the Cat). Trouble is, not many people want to hear about feminism much anymore. The poor old girl has been reduced, for so many of us who "just want to have fun," to some mythically burned bras and a hopelessly outdated chorus of, "We all come from the goddess."
But the disclaimer, the little asterisk on those predictably ardent responses to the relevance of the gender question, is that girl-power rock is alive and kicking, and it makes new converts every year. With These Things We Say, Ms. Led blatantly tell you where you can stick both your misogyny and your tired stereotypes of feminists, but they do it with a fierce indie-punk groove that kicks your ass into action and onto the dance floor. You like feminist music. You just don't know it yet. So listen up.
Ms. Led came together through a series of lucky newspaper ads. Frontwoman Lesli Wood and bassist Matt Menovcik started playing music together when both moved to Seattle from Detroit. At first, they just backed up each other's solo projects; later they played together as a band called Lesliwood with a string of occasional bandmates. Eventually, they came across drummer Steph Hasselman's ad, looking for musicians to blend into the Rotten Apples. Peg Wood came on board when the band placed an ad looking for a female bassist—Menovcik was to play guitar—and Peg, a guitarist, tried to "wheedle in on the bass stuff." Instead, she became the band's other guitarist, while Menovcik stuck to bass. They changed their name to Ms. Led, after one of Lesliwood's songs, just before the release of their first album, Afternoon in Central Park.
Ms. Led's aesthetic is steeped in badass-girl and girl-fronted bands like the Gits, Sleater-Kinney, and Elastica. With These Things, the band has taken those common influences and filtered them through each member's individual musical interests, and the results are both infectiously hook-laden and raw. "And Now We Know," for example, is a dirty, campy romp through surf-rock, Lesli Wood's boisterous vocals sparring with sassy guitar licks that saunter up and down the scale. The band even takes a stab at retro-electro with "Keep on the Outside," a track that feels a little out of place but effortlessly gets the toes tapping.
But Ms. Led want to make a more explicit statement than the one being a fierce (and fiercely eclectic) grrrl band already makes. Much of their music, therefore, is shaped around a message of leftist politics, queer pride, and feminism—and a fervent desire to challenge perceptions of what that message sounds like.
Lesli Wood wrote "Small Changes" two years ago, but right now it's easy to hear as a heartening postelection anthem. The lyrics tap into rampant exasperation with the country's current state of affairs ("Right now, mutiny looks pretty good to me"), while also reminding us, "Small change is still change." The singer had intended the song as a response to what she refers to as "the eternal question of, 'What can I do?' Activists don't always win—it's a fact. But we have to keep fighting; everything we do makes a difference."
Which doesn't mean Ms. Led equate politics with preaching, balancing the album's more grave elements with, well, "a lot of songs about fucking," according to Peg Wood. (A running joke with the band is that the album's subtitle should have been "Songs about feminism and fucking," which is pretty accurate.)
In other words, Ms. Led write kick-ass rock songs about stuff that they—and we all—deal with every day. Sex and relationships are, of course, well-worn terrains for most of us, but even though we might not always like to admit it, so are discrimination and political frustration. "Just by being women and being queer in the scene, it's going to immediately put you in a political arena because you're working in a circuit that is traditionally male-dominated," says Lesli Wood. Ms. Led are simply taking those issues out of the intimate vent session and putting them onstage. They see their access to that forum as a privilege and, necessarily, feel compelled to use it to try to effect change.
Still think girl-power rock doesn't sound like much fun? Ms. Led blow that complaint out of the water with the album's opening track, "Stigma," which takes our collective resistance to the necessity of feminism head-on. Lesli Wood growls, "We say things they won't play on radio," her bandmates shout a jarring, "Hey!" and the band wails on a bare-bones Sleater-Kinney-style jam, guitars thrashing around an ardent drum tattoo. Yeah, it's talking about things we aren't always comfortable with. But no, we aren't done talking about gender yet. There's still work to be done—and damn good music to be made.
Ms. Led play the Crocodile Cafe between headliners Dear John Letters and openers Glorious at 9 p.m. Thurs., Dec. 9. $7.