Kathleen Hanna has been asking provocative musical questions for a decade, beginning with her early days in Bikini Kill, the band that defined the brief-lived riot-grrrl style. So it's characteristic that she gets right to the crux of today's pop music dilemma with the first line of the debut album by her new trio, Le Tigre: "Who took the bomp?" asks "Deceptacon," inverting Barry Mann's classic rock-and-roll query "Who put the bomp in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp?"
In the original, a Top 10 hit in 1961, the person who put the bomp "made my baby fall in love with me." But in these less innocent times, Hanna protests, music "is sucking my heart out my mind." She wants to know how to restore rock's purpose and passion, and her tentative solution is a band that combines punk guitar, girl-group solidarity, hip-hop technology and riot-grrrl analysis--sort of Teenage Atari Riot meets the Shangri-Las, with some riffs left over from Bikini Kill. The resulting "Le Tigre" (Mr. Lady) is--like the work of her previous band--inconsistent but sometimes thrilling.
Hanna's new collaborators are fanzine editor Johanna Fateman and video-maker Sadie Benning, and her new base is New York City. "My My Metrocard" blasts Mayor Rudy Giuliani because he "shut down/ All the stripbars/ Workfare/ Does not work." Hanna worked as a stripper during the period when Bikini Kill (which began in Olympia, Wash.) was based in the District, but she's not exactly indie-rock's version of today's pin-up pop temptresses. The exuberant "Hot Topic's" list of role models includes Gertrude Stein, Yoko Ono, Nina Simone, Billie Jean King, Atari Teenage Riot's Hanin Elias and several lesbian or bisexual women's bands. Britney Spears's name is not dropped.
"We keep wondering when we're going to feel something real," muses "The The Empty," another song that essentially asks who took the bomp. "I went to yr concert and I didn't feel anything." Le Tigre's solution echoes Bikini Kill's: Make your own music, make your own revolution. In "Eau D'Bedroom Dancing," Hanna celebrates the self-invention of the everyday recluse: "There's no fear when I'm in my room/ It's so clear and I know just what I want to do." For Le Tigre, individual bedroom reveries are more freeing than the mass-market dreams so successfully merchandised to girls and young women today.
In format, "Le Tigre" is similar to Hanna's post-Bikini solo album, released under the alias Julie Ruin. But the new album, which was cannily co-produced by ex-dB Chris Stamey, is more lucid in both sound and vision. The disc does lose urgency during such art-hop experiments as "Sideshow at Free University" and "Dude Yr So Crazy," which meld spoken-word vocals and synthbeats in a manner that is all too familiar. The most vehement songs, however, burst out of the bedroom and onto the barricades.
CAPTION: The grrrl-group Le Tigre: Kathleen Hanna, left, Johanna Fateman and Sadie Benning.