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Shoplifting

Body Stories

(Kill Rock Stars; US: 21 Mar 2006; UK: 13 Mar 2006)

“Take your hands and spread me”, Hannah Blilie sings in the closing moments of Shoplifting’s debut LP Body Stories, bringing rather literal meaning to the term “interstitial.” This is a band that operates at the junction of body politics and the body-politic, and it’s as invested in combating sexually repressive policies as it is in reclaiming erotic self-definition; “Now take me”, Blilie instructs to complete the album, but not before asking, “Are you gloved?”


Anyone who thought riot-grrl was dead could be forgiven the misunderstanding; Bikini Kill, after all, has long since given way to the relative frivolity of Le Tigre’s new-wave bounce, while Sleater-Kinney now mines the tropes of classic rock, albeit with more vitality. But whoever wrote the genre’s eulogy forgot to tell the energetic upstarts of Shoplifting, who take after the likeminded Erase Errata in filtering the punk politics of riot-grrl through the jagged, stuttering, anti-melodicism of classic no-wave, resulting in a fresh hybrid of polemical skronk. Choppy guitars, rubbery basslines, shouted group vocals: these are the tools of Shoplifting’s trade, which they ply with boundless enthusiasm and respectable skill.


The band’s most compelling body story comes early, on the standout “Male Gynecology”. As a nervous guitar line squirms uneasily beneath chant-like singing straight out of Repeater-era Fugazi, Chris Pugmire (who shares vocal duties with Blilie) deconstructs his body; “rusted scalpels slice my rhetorical”, he declares, as he moves beyond textual identity to corporeal internality in an effort to “reconstruct my long lost womb”. Inverting the masculinist creation myth of Adam’s rib, “Male Gynecology” sounds like Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble as put to music by DNA. It’s a terrific, jolting, interrogatory burst, both as oblique and as sly as a queer theory essay done right.


Not everything matches the propulsive intensity of that song; elsewhere, on “Talk of the Town”, Shoplifting sound content to rely on traditional riot-grrl manifestas, as Pugmire and Blilie shout in unison. Even there, though, turgid lines such as “I define my body / I define my boundaries / I define consent” are redeemed through sheer performative energy; they may read like pages straight out of a photocopied poetry zine from 1991, but the band means it, conveys that unabashed sincerity in its coarse shouts, and sells the moment. Any attempt to belittle the band’s overly literal gracelessness is quashed by its persuasive agitprop passion; in a time of regressive and repressive sexual politics such as this, Shoplifting sound downright empowering even at its most seemingly banal.


The band hardly wants for moments of pointed intellect, though, as its survey of the signifying possibilities of the alphabet in “What about a Word?”, bookended by references to terrorism, suggests the manipulation of everyday discourse at the hands of the national security state. If “Male Gynecology” is the band’s Gender Studies lecture, this is their Semiotics seminar, and the discrete guitar squiggles sound like some kind of coded message of resistance. The concluding urge to “break the letter” may draw charges of naivety from scoffing pedants eager to remind Shoplifting il n’ya pas de hors-texte, but this is hardly a band to rest complacently in the face of theoretical pontification or received wisdom.


If the group does occasionally succumb to banality, it is not in the generally provocative lyrics but rather in the musical settings. “Illegalists” is a typical track, featuring staccato stabs of guitar until spaced-out effects take charge, and on its own it works fine. Sandwiched between several tracks of a similar bent, it blurs into a generalized musical landscape of blunt jerkiness and discordant notes. The semi-ominous erotic charge of closing track “Claude Glass” is somewhat muted by the fact that the guitar line sounds like a mild perversion of Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther theme song, leaving the closing lines about gloved hands to bring unintentional giggles as one imagines Inspector Clouseau preparing for inspection—an image difficult to reconcile with the seriousness of its intended assertion of queer identity. A few perfunctory noise jams also round out the album, serving mostly as padding.


So it’s not perfect. But Body Stories brims over with precisely the kind of heartfelt, politically-charged fervor that’s far more likely to save rock, or at least to instill a true appreciation of its potential power in young listeners, than any number of self-indulgently retro-oriented celebrants of traditional excess and irony. If Shoplifting don’t quite steal your heart, that’s only because they’ve also got designs for your brain.

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