Okay, let’s play a little game. Put on your “I Know My Cultural Stereotypes” hat, sit back, relax, and get ready to consult your color-coded flashcards if necessary. Good. Now that you’re comfortable, be honest and say, out loud, the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the dreaded words “Feminist Consciousness-Raising Group”. Be honest now. I bet I know what you’re thinking about: a bunch of frizzy-haired women, probably lesbians, who don’t shave their legs (not because it’s more convenient but because it’s the politically correct thing to do), think having any kind of sex is “degrading”, have many, many cats, sit around in circles and hold hand mirrors to their vaginas, and don’t find a damn thing funny in a world filled with so much oppression and pain. Now, we all know this isn’t what feminism really is (most feminists are too busy volunteering their time and energy to have time for group vagina exams), but we’re all familiar with this image. So hang on with me for another stereotypical minute or so and add one final thing to this image: the soundtrack.
In case you’re having trouble imagining what kind of music would accompany this rich scene, may I respectfully suggest you pick up Rebecca Riot’s Gardener? Rebecca Riots, a Berkeley-based trio consisting of Eve Decker, Andrea Prichett, and Lisa Zeiler, sounds a lot like the worst of Joan Baez, only with harmonies, and the band’s ability to provide the soundtrack for a new generation of feminist political outrage would be just as solid as Baez’s, if it weren’t for one pesky little fact: modern feminism doesn’t look, feel, or sound like the feminism of the 1960s or 1970s. Contemporary social liberals have found competent, compelling voices in the work of Ani DiFranco, Rage Against the Machine, and even Consolidated, all artists who combine political commentary with solid, innovative artistic instrumentation and vocal performances. In other words, it ain’t yer momma’s “folk” music. In fact, it isn’t really folk music at all. This isn’t to say that folk music isn’t still a valuable and viable genre, but as outdated as the image of the humorless feminist political meeting is, the flaccid, catatonic folk sound of Rebecca Riots is even more outdated.
For what it is, Rebecca Riots does it pretty well. Their harmonies are nicely if predictably layered, and their lyrics are obviously heartfelt. The musicians on this album are clearly competent and their integrity comes through with careful and deliberate precision. But what this album lacks, musically as well as lyrically, is any sense of energy or spontaneity. It is an album that you could go to sleep to, and unlike artists like Enya or the always-breathtaking Aimee Mann, I do not mean this in a good way. It’s not that it’s relaxing so much as Gardener is simply something you’ve heard before, many times, probably when stuck driving through the most remote corner of Utah, desperately searching for a radio station that comes in clearly and isn’t reporting news on hog shares or corn stock, and had to resort to some archaic AM station that boasts a DJ named Flashin’ Frank or The Slashman. You know the type.
Gardener starts with “Gentle Rebellion”, a plea for more political activism despite the likelihood that nothing is going to change. Fair enough. But let me give you a taste of the lyrics: “It’s not about keeping silent / When you know there’s something wrong / No one wants to start a confrontation / But it doesn’t help to simply walk away”. Um, okay, yeah. But this sounds more like something that should be shouted through a bullhorn at a rally than it does the opening lyrics of an album that is self-described as “fresh radical folk”. The album moves through more of the same, stopping in “Shantytown” (“The night thinned our numbers / but steeled our resolve / we sang freedom songs / all night long / we knew that the hour had come / when the blue line / just had to be crossed”), “Sing to the Angels” (“the artists and the activists, the teachers and the cooks / every act of love must go down in the angel books”), and “Borrowed Clothes” (“I slept last night in People’s Park / and this morning it looks like rain / if it weren’t for Food not Bombs / I’d go hungry again”) before finally coming to a desperately deserved end. To say that this album is just a touch on the preachy side, not to mention self-righteous, is like saying that George W. Bush is just a touch stupid. It’s actually a bit embarrassing to listen to, but not for me—for them. It’s the aural equivalent of watching somebody walk through the supermarket with toilet paper stuck to the heel of their shoe.
Ultimately, Gardener sounds almost like what you would expect to see if Saturday Night Live did a parody of folk music, and Rebecca Riots seems like an outdated piece of nostalgia. And that doesn’t seem “fresh” or “radical” to me.