Suffragette City

You Throw a Punch, You're Getting One Back

Resolved, That the objection of indelicacy and impropriety, which is so often brought against woman when she addresses a public audience, comes with a very ill-grace from those who encourage, by their attendance, her appearance on the stage, in the concert. Or in feats of the circus.—Elizabeth Cady Stanton, excerpt from the Seneca Falls Declaration, 1848


Brody Armstrong sings as if there's a battle royal inside her. Her words are like bodies getting hurled out of the ring. The 24-year-old singer-guitarist (married to Rancid's Tim) is at the center of L.A. punk trio the Distillers. She's Australian-born, with a cathedral-high mohawk and armor of inked skin that includes a tattoo of a skull with a pink hair bow and the words "FUCK OFF" on her upper left arm. Add to that a caustic feminist attitude, and you have one ass-kicking individual. Some punks may cry "sellout" at the band's signing with Warner Bros. after two albums on Hellcat Records and two videos recently conquering MTV2. But it's pivotal that TRL culture get a dose of adroit punk songwriting by a pissed-off woman with a heart that bleeds through the fingers that clutch it. L7 is M.I.A., 7 Year Bitch and Babes in Toyland are not coming back, and Courtney Love is off excavating the valley of the dolls. And while bratty rock is alive in the Donnas, Sahara Hotnights, and Kelly Osbourne (kidding!), those bands don't get ugly or dig deep.

No sassy fashion-plate strutting; no whipping out well-meaning discourse.
photo: B.J. Papas
No sassy fashion-plate strutting; no whipping out well-meaning discourse.

For over a year, the Distillers' second album, Sing Sing Death House, has been attracting increasingly mainstream ears. The themes are generic punk—alienation, anger, rebellion—but their invigorating execution sets the Distillers apart from all those barking mooks. Armstrong translates her rage into rollicking hooks, pummeling melodies, and sing-along choruses, so her do-or-die hope and determination wind up as emotionally encouraging as they are intensely addictive. Andy Granelli's drums hail down like Tetris pieces locking in place; Ryan Sinn's basslines kick up sludge that welds spot-on with Armstrong's power riffing. Significance is provided by lyrical situations that kids will recognize.

Armstrong's acute awareness and empathy distinguish her. "Sick of It All" casts a dark light on kids likened to "silent stars on a B-role." Armstrong sings as a 13-year-old girl with an eating disorder, a self-mutilator, a Columbine-like killer. "All the world's light won't ease my pain. It won't cease, I'm diseased, will you hang me please," she chokes. In "City of Angels," she exposes the reality of chronically wayward youth. "Look around, ain't no R.I.P. signs here. We don't rest in peace, we just disappear."

Armstrong's intuition keeps her smart, but it's simultaneously ostracizing. She grew up a troubled kid in Melbourne. Her mother threw her father out of the house for battery; Armstrong frequently ran away from home, got into drugs and other sorts of self-abuse. After a while, she got fed up and reached for a guitar. The message is clear: Use your voice or risk getting swallowed. So she sings for herself, and also for others who got damaged along the way. In "Young Girl," she directly apologizes to her childhood friend Gerti Rouge; Rouge is also mentioned on the Distillers' previous album. She obviously lived through some unsavory shit; Armstrong's apology, which has her taking responsibility for actions not her own, is akin to saying you're sorry when your friend's mom dies, even though you didn't kill the friend's mom. Her band's self-titled debut album, from 2000, was more raw; it scratched its way through the air with more screaming. Sing Sing's songs are haughtier and groovier; melodies bubble up and rock side-to-side. In the title track, fierce as whiplash, Armstrong's guttural, acrid rasp proclaims, "I keep the memories of a broken you. Sing, sing the stories of a fractured few."

While her words may speak for others, they speak loudest for stifled women. She abides by a brand of feminism best exemplified by her predecessors L7, when they warned, "Get out of my way or I'm gonna shove." The new album's most emotionally stirring war cry is a history lesson modified into a latter-day call to arms: "Seneca Falls" returns us to New York, where, in the summer of 1848, the first Women's Rights Convention was held. Armstrong invokes Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, "forever reminding me, I don't steal the air I breathe." Her fearless, crass voice might earn her scowls, but she's entitled to a piece of the pie. It's a fight she'll be in for the rest of her life.

Armstrong's songs would leave stretch marks on the mouths of Karen O or even riot grrrl's sanctioned wet nurse Kathleen Hanna; she isn't about to strut like a sassy fashion plate or whip out some well-meaning discourse while coyly fiddling with her tits. Her power lies in a don't-even-think-about-fucking-with-me attitude. It's immediate, forceful, and unwavering—and too many girls still need to be convinced this is a beneficial way to be. Ignorance is not tolerated, and there is no discussion. You throw a punch—literally or figuratively—and you're getting one right back, weightier than the shit you brought. Sing Sing Death Houseis about survival, and it makes the odds of thinking, believing, bleeding-heart punk kids look better than they have in years. If you don't concur, take the hint from Armstrong's arm, and fuck off.

 
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