Photo by Shervin Lainez

For Its Hardly Art Debut, The Julie Ruin Takes Care of Itself

Kathleen Hanna returns with an exhilarating album and a band fully on board.

The pairing of local indie label Hardly Art with The Julie Ruin is something of a no-brainer. What better home for the band’s loud-and-proud feminist politics, sharp sense of humor, and splashes of surf guitar than a label that currently supports woman-centered Chastity Belt, La Luz, and Tacocat? Hit Reset, The Julie Ruin’s second album—and first for Hardly Art—gets unflinchingly personal while still highlighting social issues with a bright palette of markers.

The eye of The Julie Ruin cyclone is, of course, Kathleen Hanna, former lead singer of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre. While Hanna introduced the Julie Ruin name with a self-titled Kill Rock Stars release in 1997, it wasn’t until 2013 that she returned to it, adding “The” and a full band and releasing Run Fast. Prior to that release, Hanna took a lengthy hiatus from music, detailed in Sini Anderson’s 2013 documentary The Punk Singer, which tracks Hanna’s career as well as her experience with chronic Lyme disease—an illness that is most likely affecting someone you know, even if they don’t know it yet.

For Hit Reset, however, Hanna is less focused on physical illness and more on emotional health. Like her fellow Scorpios, the singer is an intense and magnetic presence who likes to lift rocks to reveal what crawls beneath, drawing attention to injustices and hypocrisy. Hit Reset reflects this driving desire to get direct and name what’s really happening.

On “Be Nice,” Hanna flexes her talent for crafting creative discomfort and expert tension. Creepy tones and a panicked pace give the track a haunted-house feel, reminiscent of Wendy Carlos’ genius synth work on The Shining’s soundtrack. “He’s got his hand in my pocket and his hand in my purse … Why won’t you give me erections?/Give me expressions?” Not exactly make-out music—and that’s OK. “Be Nice” is an exorcism.

Not all songs on Hit Reset are “easy” to hear, but most are fit for dancing (especially bedroom dancing) and exhilarating—great for getting ready in the morning or working up the courage to make an important decision and press “send.” The empowerment in “I Decide” and “I’m Done,” in particular, goes well beyond their titles.

“Rather Not” is the most Hardly-Art- sounding track on the record. With sunny guitar by Sara Landeau and a catchy melody, it feels like summer. But listen closer, and you’ll hear lyrics about dissolving unhealthy platonic relationships and cutting old ties in favor of self-respect: “You talk talk talk away but I, I can’t hear/Your texts scream thru my phone, but I wish they’d disappear.”

Another boundary-setting jam is “Let Me Go.” Handclaps lighten the heaviness of its content: “I can’t tell you why/Don’t care to try/Anymore … /It’s just the time when I have to go … /Would you love me enough to let me go away?” It’s high time someone acknowledges the heartbreak inherent in unfriending. The pain of friendship breakup is real.

For the track “Mr. So and So,” spoken more than sung, Hanna returns to her spoken-word beginnings. Her first release on Kill Rock Stars (the label’s first-ever release, in fact) was a “Wordcore” single titled “Rockstar” that approached misogyny with unapologetic candor. Reviving that approach, Hanna here cranks her sarcasm to burn mode in a sizzling critique of a very specific kind of guy. You know this guy: the self-congratulatory male feminist “with a/Sleater-Kinney T shirt on” who still acts like an entitled, sexist slimeball. “Mr. So and So” presents these ding-dongs as a larger social statement to which many women can, unfortunately, relate.

Tracks like “Mr. So and So” have a sort of solo-project quality, yet on Hit Reset, The Julie Ruin’s band dynamic seems more solid and settled than on their previous album. Rather than rotate vocal and lyric duties like a household chore wheel, group members now follow Hanna’s vision like a true backing band.

In this life we encounter things we can’t control: illness, family trauma, friends who won’t show up for us. This collection of songs offers us a way to move through what’s difficult. Decide who stays and who should stay away. Some things you can control and transform. Face the truth, then rinse the grit and start anew. Hit reset.

music@seattleweekly.com

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