Hey, it's like the girl version of cool stuff!"
Sometimes it's easy to see where a buzz comes from. Magneta Lane is from a hot musical scene (Toronto indie rock) and on a label that pretty consistently releases music worth hearing (Paper Bag Records). The group ties in to recent trends, but has enough energy to make you forget about words like "derivative". With so much hype building around a handful of live shows and a 20-minute EP, you've got to wonder how the group will really stand up to repeated listens and deeper scrutiny.
Magneta Lane isn't breaking any new ground, but they cover their terrain well. Their debut EP The Constant Lover comes from the same musical place as the Strokes (although with more aggression) and keeps the New Wave sound in mind. Vocalist Lexi Valentine has been drawing lots of accurate references to Chrissie Hynde, partly because of the tone of her voice, and partly because of its delivery.
Valentine, who also plays guitar, stands at the fore of the band, and the rhythm section simply provides support. The bass and percussion are solid, but mostly uninteresting. Magneta Lane rides on fuzzy, straight-ahead power-pop; it's about results, not technique, and the trio pull it off without displaying their skills.
The group formed after Valentine and drummer Nadia King decided that watching a concert wasn't satisfying enough. There's a bit of Third Wave feminism in that attitude, but it's not a leaning the band has identified itself with. In fact, the band's press materials state that the group is "feminine but not feminist". And that poses a bit of a problem.
No one should be called a feminist who isn't willing to take that mantle, yet the explicit rejection of the connection sounds odd coming from a group that cites Hole and Nancy Sinatra as two of its influences and claims to be "intent on presenting a strong female presence". What is and isn't feminist is still hotly debated, but the Magneta Lane path into the discussion turns provocative.
The eponymous opening track reflects on two of the pulling ideas. Valentine sings:
"When he's playing his guitar
She knows the songs and he'll get far
Girl, keep your beauty
They say that's your duty."
The lyrics show the tension between the power of male fame and privilege and the desire for a woman to control (and use) her own sexuality. A woman should be able to have sex if she wants and not let "them" say what she can do, but she should also be aware of dynamics society's uneven playing field. As in the current discourse, there's no easy answer here, but Magneta Lane shows a willingness to address these concerns. What happens to song's title character? Valentine sings, "What happened to her I'm not sure."
There's no Kathleen Hanna here, and there's no dyke aggression and no "womyn", and there might not be whatever else we think of as feminism. But there are issues that are developing on The Constant Lover that should be examined. Even glance at the song titles -- including "Medusa", "Mare of the Night", "Ugly Socialite" -- suggests that there aren't dormant politics here.
So why the aversion to and pre-emptive strike on the feminist label? Maybe label/publicist fears or an uncertainty about what the f-word means or maybe its about record sales and being the girl-Strokes, letting lazy journalists cast about for lazy comparisons to any previous female act that's not too threatening (like Chrissie Hynde, for example). Feminism isn't buzz-y.
And if you're thinking it, you're right -- it's not fair for a male critic to put the burden of feminism on a young band just because they're chicks who sing from "a woman's perspective". That's absolutely true, and I don't mean to do it. I want to put the burden on everyone else involved in listening or writing to figure out how to talk about it. I hope when we get more than 20 minutes and six songs we all have something more to say.