Review Summary: Le Tigre’s major label debut finds the band struggling to do things that should be second-nature to them.
Le Tigre was formed in 1998 by Kathleen Hanna (of Bikini Kill fame), Johanna Fateman, and Sadie Benning (who would leave the group in 2000 and be replaced by JD Samson). Even after succumbing to the dreaded sophomore slump with 2001’s Feminist Sweepstakes, I was still head-over-heels in love with them. The band (known for their blend of electronic dance music and punk, their incredible hooks, their message, their… everything else), had become a very big part of my life, and helped shape my outlook for most of my life. But I guess when a band stirs the pot as much as Le Tigre did, they were bound to spill at some point.
When news got out that Universal was going to put out the band’s next outing (instead of independent record labels like Mr. Lady or Chicks on Speed), I was a bit skeptical. “Would Le Tigre’s sound appeal to a wider audience? Will they sacrifice their sound for commercial success?” My mind buzzed with thoughts of doubt. But I was relieved to hear that Nick Sansano, producer of many highly-acclaimed hip-hop records and co-producer of Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation and Goo, would be at the helm. Maybe, just maybe, Le Tigre’s hip-hop-influenced beats will mesh flawlessly with Sansano’s masterful production, and together, the team would produce a knockout combination of rallying chants and danceable grooves that will change the face of pop music for years to come.
Looking back, I should’ve known better. I shouldn’t have second-guessed myself. This Island was exactly what I thought it’d be: a laminated, black-and-white photocopy of what used to be an explosion of sound and color.
Everything here is just… wrong.
The lyrics were probably the first thing to be tossed out the window, considering how incredibly nonsensical they turned out. The confounding “Don’t Drink Poison” is all over the place lyrically, panning out like a failed attempt at writing “I Am The Walrus.” Robot hands in potted plants, gay spies, shark-suits: it reads like a madman wrote it. There’s just no cohesiveness at all, it’s just a jumbled mess of words slapped together with no thought put into it. Another lyrical disaster can be found on “Viz,” a song about lesbian visibility (a topic that’s right up this band’s alley). Sadly, while this track is a bit stronger lyrically than “Don’t Drink Poison,” it ultimately fails to make a statement about anything really, despite its intriguing premise. The track’s rather uneventful (other than its use of the word ‘dyke’), and it ends up culminating into a very underwhelming “Lesbians exist. Weird, innit?”
At this point, the album wasn’t in my good graces. The politically-charged, yet palatable lyrics were what made Le Tigre so important to pop music at the time. But I was willing to settle. I was willing to negotiate. If the album didn’t want to have a message, that’s perfectly fine. As long as the music was top notch, I’d be ready to let this album slide, and eagerly await their next release. But they couldn’t even manage that. In fact, this is really where this album really falls flat.
The album is plagued by some of the most forgettable music the band’s ever produced, complete with unexciting guitar, lackluster vocals by Hanna, and some of the limpest use of a synth ever put on record. Le Tigre has never been known for their mastery over their instruments, but this just is embarrassingly bad. It’s almost like they’re doing a parody of themselves here. Take their mind-numbingly bad cover of the Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited,” which has never sounded so sterile. The original was made by the vocal performance, but Hanna sounds like she’s faking excitement, and it’s very obvious. Her yelping and screaming from past releases are almost entirely absent from This Island, which takes away all of the personality from her performance. This is especially apparent on “Sixteen,” which is Le Tigre’s horribly misguided take on muzak. Most of the song is just Hanna monotonously repeating the phrase “I don’t know about that,” which is not something many people would have the patience to listen through to the end. She also sounds particularly downtrodden here, almost like she was pulled out of bed to record.
This album would be completely irredeemable if it weren’t for two tracks: “Tell You Now” and “Punker Plus.” The former, produced by Ric Ocasek, is the only redeemable cut off this entire album. It’s quiet, and a bit overproduced, but it’s a hundred times better than anything else here. “Punker Plus,” the last track on the album, sounds the most like a Le Tigre song, but feels a bit forced. But again, on an album completely devoid of bite, I’ll take what I can get.
After This Island’s release in 2004, Le Tigre didn’t really do much as far as new music goes. After a fairly successful chart climb (peaking at 130 on the Billboard 200) a remix album in 2005, and a writing credit on Christina Aguilera’s 2010 album Bionic (I’m just as confused as you are), it’s safe to say that Le Tigre are done recording new material. But if this album’s any indication, I guess I should be thankful.