Most music geeks have a couple of rare records in their collection that they guard like an al Qaeda member on spider-hole duty. For me, that record is Heroines, the debut from a now-defunct New York–based band called Ruby Falls. In a nutshell, it's math rock as envisioned by angular-rocking Riot Grrrls. How hard-hitting drummer Laura Rogers and her silver-throated sister Jennifer escaped the history books is beyond me, but luckily, many more people have heard of their newer (and markedly poppier) band the Rogers Sisters, who play the University of Washington Thursday, May 25.
Speaking of overlooked riots, one of the most widely held misconceptions about the Riot Grrrl and queercore genres was that the passion of the politics always trumped the musicianship. Granted, the DIY philosophy (and, by extension, the misguided notion that anyone can pick up an instrument and play something worthwhile) produced its share of unlistenable rantings. But this mid-'90s movement was not solely defined by angry young things clumsily banging out barre chords and screeching simplistically about gender roles.
Some of this is due to the incorrect assumption that Bikini Kill were the cream of the crop. Kathleen Hanna deserves credit for her endurance as the scene's unintentional lightning rod and for providing the spark that made the band's live shows so electrifying, but BK didn't master their craft until their swan song, Reject All American. It was a group of brainier, more technically proficient bands like 66 Saints (later Parini), Juned, Huggy Bear, the Lookers, Slant 6, Containe, and the aforementioned Ruby Falls that kept the focus on breaking new ground creatively and politically. No other artist exemplified that two-pronged attack as beautifully as Team Dresch, the four-piece from Portland who were essentially the Ramones of their time.
In 1994 the band dropped Personal Best, one of the finest debuts in punk-rock history; it sounds as potent today as it did when it was released jointly by Donna Dresch's Chainsaw Records 12 years ago (earlier pressings were jointly released by Chainsaw and Jody Bleyle's Candy-Ass Records). This 24-minute hurricane of self-proclaimed "lesbionic punk rock" is a barely contained capsule of sleek pop hooks being mercilessly overdriven by the dual guitars of Dresch and Kaia Wilson and hammered heavenward by Marci Martinez's adrenalized drumming. The call-and-response vocals of Wilson and Bleyle (who also handled bass and occasional guitar duties) gave both political weight and fierce beauty to anthemic punk screeds "Fagetarian and Dyke" and "Hate the Christian Right!" while their sweeter solo moments on tracks like "She's Crushing My Mind" and "Growing up in Springfield" were both moving and mesmerizing. Recorded in a scant five days in Seattle (at producer John Goodmanson's shoebox-sized Fremont studio), Personal Best set the bar so damn high that the band faltered on their follow-up, 1996's Captain My Captain, and dissolved shortly thereafter. Dresch returned her attention to her label, releasing the first two records for Sleater-Kinney, a band clearly inspired by Team Dresch's trademark vocals and disciplined musicianship.
Although they did play a one-night stand at 2004's Homo A Go Go Festival in Olympia, Team Dresch haven't played a Seattle show in over a decade, which is what makes their reunion gig Friday, May 26, at Neumo's so meaningful. "After lesbian processing our relationship for the last five years, we realized that we really just want to be playing music together still," quips Dresch when I ask her about the motivation for the reunion. Unfortunately, illness was also a catalyst. "Our friend is fighting breast cancer right now, so we set up a benefit show in New York City," she explains. "And since we were all together we decided to play Seattle, Portland, and Olympia, as well." Their ambitions don't end there; they have a handful of new songs and there are plans in the works for a tour of China with a newly reformed L7 next year.
It's testimony to the enduring strength of Personal Best that it continues to sell steadily to this day. "I'm surprised that sales have remained so hot throughout the years," remarks Dresch. "I still get letters from kids telling me how much they love it or can't believe they just found out about it after all these years."