Review: The Julie Ruin at The Troubadour

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Say what you will about Red Bull — they’ve curated a heckuva month of music in Los Angeles (a music deprived city if ever there was one, cough cough).

And on day six, the aforementioned Euro caffeine merchant brought us to The Troubadour in West Hollywood to a performance by The Julie Ruin.

Starting off the evening: New York City’s Bad Girlfriend. With four girls on stage it’s natural to wonder…which one is the bad girlfriend? How bad is she? Bad, like, she won’t scratch your back, bad, or bad, like, she sleeps with your brother while you’re away at war?

Their sound bridges the divide between 90’s indie and shoegazey pop, which does not help answer the question at hand. Repetitious bass lines and drum beats along with minimalist guitar strokes create a pleasant-enough groove, a groove that never anticipates the bad things these ostensibly nice girls are apparently capable of doing. Next thing you know, you’re sitting patiently at home, waiting on the couch as dinner sits on the table getting cold, and her cat is repeatedly attempting to sit on your head. You don’t fight stasis, though, because they’re good enough to keep you in their vortex, at least until something obviously better crosses your path.

Toronto’s DIANA follows, and another question comes to mind: do band in all caps always feature a synth? (Or, in this case, 1 girl, 3 guys, and 5 synths). Carmen Elle sings lead as she also takes on guitar duties, and a very, very vigorous drummer bangs away on both real and electronic drums. They’re ok; they have some good moments — even a few that lurch towards greatness — but it seems unlikely that their visage will start wars (yet).

The bigger issue is that they make little sense as an opener for The Julie Ruin. They’re the shy guy who can’t get up the gumptionto hit on the girl. They’re emotional, sure, but they don’t really mesh with Kathleen Hanna‘s emotionally assaultive approach. Even when it’s good, like, when they pour out their souls with a bleeding sax solo any fan of “St. Elmo’s Fire” would love, it seems a bit displaced. There’s little doubt that if our paths crossed in the right time and place, I’d like DIANA at least as much as Bad Girlfriend, but timing matters in any relationship.

The Julie Ruin starts with a Kathleen Hanna aural intro in which she makes an oblique reference to something bad that happened last night and the arrival of a comedian on stage whose name required research (Hari Kondabolu).

After some jokes about white chocolate and white Jesus…feminist penis jokes and a great turn on Hillary Clinton and Illuminati puppets, The Julie Ruin finally takes the stage

A splash of a golden, disco ball fabric peeks out from beneath Kathleen’s black flag t-shirt. And, underneath that, a black leotard that recalls the ballet classes she took as a kid before undertaking a different form of dancing as a young adult.

Her outfit is almost as amazing as her charisma, which explodes amidst a retro jam (“V.G.I.,” from her 1998 project then known as Julie Ruin) that combines the sweetness of The Ronettes with the piss and vinegar of The Sex Pistols. It’s bouncy and vibrant and glossy while remaining dark and raw and rough around the edges, veering towards rock opera on multiple occasions.

It’s something of a metaphor for the band itself; it’s not about perfection. Quite the opposite. It’s about embracing imperfections in a perfectly natural way. It’s recognizing that bad things happen, and that your reaction may not be the one society venerates. It’s soul-exposed singing, warbles and atonalities and weirdness a fundamental trait rather than something to be smoothed out in post-production.

She loses the Black Flag shirt, strips down to the leotard and is soon screaming out, “Oh Come On!” Although it’s a newer track, it sums up the influence Hanna has had on Riot Grrrrl (and female rockers from the Pacific Northwest, in particular). It employs girlishness alongside crunchiness, that combo in which you can hear a genre’s roots.

She chants her way through “Ha Ha Ha,”  Ha Ha Ha Ha Armageddon …. I’m even happier that Sleater-Kinney is back, a band that absolutely could not exist without KH. It conjures memories I have, once or twice removed, of 70s and 80s NYC, of Jim Carroll and beat poetry and raw power. It’s underground art (yes, presented by Red Bull) and a window into a time and a place where twitter was DIY flyers, where facebook was your older cousin’s mixtape. These are those moments when 7 inches of Slant 6 and Red 5 and the foursome (3 girls) that was Bikini Kill opened one young male mind to a wider world.

It’s now 2014. Things are ever so different and ever so much the same. The same dreams of the past persist and haunt, maybe even taunt. I stand next to a Transformer as the claps mount and the emotion rises, the house lights get in our eyes, the band exits stage right in this smokeless room and The Clash takes over the PA, still voicing their own lessons from the grave.

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Behrnsie has a love for music that dare not speak its name. He attends many shows and can often be found counting out the beats for no discernible reason. He played alto saxophone in his middle school jazz band, where he was best known for infuriating his instructor when it was revealed that he played everything by ear, and could not in fact read music. He takes great pride that this is the same talent/affliction that got Tori Amos kicked out of the Peabody Academy. He does not live in his parents’ basement….except during the holidays.