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Southern Discomfort


A soft-bellied, hummable investigation into going solo, being butch and feeling an outlaw kind of desire, Amy Ray’s Stag isn’t restricted to men; it’s got nothing to do with horses or deer or pornography. But it is, in its way, a stag party. Ray, who’s been performing as the dark-haired, throaty half of the Indigo Girls for the past thirteen years, shows up on this album unaccompanied, in a manner of speaking, by the ladies — Emily Saliers, Epic Records — she’s been taking to the dance all these years. And, having assembled a new collection of rebellious musicians (Southerners, punk rockers, dykes) she throws herself a giddy, badass party. No music business executives and no straight girls allowed in the studio, thanks.

    

Released on Ray’s own eleven-year-old indie label (Georgia-based Daemon Records), the album features a mini–who’s who of the queer girl music scene — icons Joan Jett and Kate Schellenbach (formerly of Luscious Jackson) play backup on a couple of songs, and members of underground bands Rock*A*Teens and Three Finger Cowboy join in on one or two others. But, poetically enough, it’s the Butchies — a North Carolina punk trio distributed by an outfit called Mr. Lady Records — that accompanies Ray through the emotional and musical core of the album. The Butchies, for instance, join Ray on what presents itself as the album’s signature tune, “Lucy Stoners.” A smart aleck–y, flowing, electric guitar-based track, “Lucy Stoners” combines a feminist critique of the music industry with transcendent, rebellious harmony. “We were talking ticket slump,” she sings, “trying to put our finger on it./ Quantify the undoing/ of each little step — its just a lack of press.” Indigo Girl–like, she and the Butchies strum their guitars while Ray’s playful disses — of blowjob-obsessed musicians, the music industry’s marketing strategies and the popularity of “faggot-bashing” songs — crescendo. By the time the sing-songy, teasing chorus comes around (“Janny Wenner, Janny Wenner, Rolling Stone‘s most fearless leader / gave the boys what they deserve but with the girls he lost his nerve”) she and her pals are happily yowling with anti-corporate, queer girl solidarity. As the track ends, they repeat the chorus over and over, deliriously, as if gathered around somebody’s hairbrush at a pajama party. “Lucy Stoners don’t need boners,” they howl. (Lucy Stoners: Girls who take after nineteenth-century feminist Lucy Stone, the first married woman to keep her name? Girls who smoke pot? Stone butches? Take your pick.)

    

But Ray’s collaborations with the Butchies don’t just feature tough-mouthed activist passion. The Butchies also play backup to Ray’s considerations of how it feels to have her butch heart broken. On “Mtns of glory” — the most divulgent track on the CD — they amp it up as Ray spins her version of “Heartbreak Hotel.” “I’m gonna miss being the boy,” she sings, “I’m gonna miss being the man . . . Hey baby don’t you want to feel/ mountains of glory, mountains of glory?” Layered, subtle and rhythmic, these lines are about as revealing as Ray ever gets about her personal life; despite the pornographic promise of the name of the album, it delivers almost nothing that’s expressly erotic. There are no juicy details about Ray’s past or present love life, and only the barest, most cryptic references to the very idea of her sexual desire. “Hey Castrator” (which features, instead of the Butchies, Joan Jett, Kate Schellenbach and the Breeders’ Josephine Wiggs), an open-ended, sinister ditty about a sexually frustrated teenager who can’t get a date, hints at something personal. “I hate myself for turning on,” Ray intones darkly at the end of the song. “Take this strong out of me.” But because the song is told through an ambiguous series of short poem-lines, its impossible to tell whether the teenager in question is meant to be Ray as a young, lonely, self-hating queer girl or as a teenaged rapist.

    

And so the onus is on the politics to give this stag party its energy. The language about her personal life may be cloaked, but Ray keeps nothing back when crooning about, say, homophobia or misogyny in the music industry — to mixed effect. At its best, Stag combines plucky political passion with the joys of melody; once in a while, though, her activist anthems devolve into limp slogan-songs. “Laramie,” her tribute to Matthew Shepard, for example, drives a politically decent impulse into a musical heap of rehashed, leaflet-y political argument. Despite a few satisfyingly angry lines (“Those rednecks are just doing/ what the classy fucker’s thinking”) and its noble intentions, the song is mostly uncharacteristically flavorless and rigid: “What we need is a little addition/ an ounce of prevention/ and the weight of the law,” Ray sings, as if on a hate crimes lobby trip. “Hey Coalition,” she adds (referring to the Christian Coalition), “lay down your mission.” The song rhymes, and it wants the right things; but it could use a little of that poetic subtlety Ray manages so well when it comes to treating the contours of her personal life.

    

Still, it’s easy to forgive her for these excesses. Ray is so obviously riding a post–Lilith Fair/all-girl collaboration high that it makes you feel ungenerous to hold a grudge. And anyway, as she writes in the liner notes, “The heart of this record is . . . in that Southern punk ethic — subversiveness with a smile.” As everyone knows, butch girls with a Southern punk ethic are hard to resist.


For more Rachel Mattson, read:

Boygirl, Boygirl
Drive: A Suburban Mystery
The Sum of the Parts: Showtime’s “Sex in the Twentieth Century”
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