A Spirited Throwback
Allison Wolfe—who shares lead vocal duties in Sex Stains with Los Angeles-based choreographer Mecca Vazie Andrews—is now 46 years old, which for aging punk rock legends can mean time for a life of reunion tours or mediocre spoken word performances. It’s an unlikely age to start a brand new punk band, but that doesn’t stop Sex Stains from sounding vital and energetic by modern day standards.
Their sound isn’t too far off from the surfy garage rock of Wolfe’s pioneering riot grrrl group Bratmobile, but with a foregrounded angular post-punk element that guitarist Sharif Dumani explained in an L.A. Weekly profile was inspired by punk rock guitar innovators like Richard Hell & The Voidoids’ Robert Quine and The Fall’s Brix Smith, among others.
Wolfe and Andrews each write their own vocal parts, which creates an interplay between the two singers’ unique styles from song to song. Whereas Wolfe has taken a modernized approach to the acerbic Feminist tirades that she contributed to Bratmobile, the anger in the parts sung by Andrews is more abstract. When Andrews takes lead vocal duties on retro rock number “Cutie Pie,” for example, her lyrics seem simply to undermine the pining female persona that was commonplace in girl group ballads of the ’50s. By contrast, many of Wolfe’s lyrics deal with specific situations taken from her own life experiences. Oftentimes Andrews’ vocals are low in the mix, highlighting her fierce delivery first and foremost, while Wolfe’s parts are clearer, demanding the listener hear what she has to say. Though Wolfe’s presence sometimes seems dominant on the album, their shared vocal dynamic ultimately allows for a shifting focus between pointed personal diatribes and pure primal outrage, both of which are essential components of good punk rock in their own right.
In today’s musical landscape, retro is “in” more than ever before, between reunions of seemingly every seminal band imaginable—most recently, the Misfits with Glenn Danzig—and critically acclaimed bands whose approach is grounded in creative homage—for example Angel Du$t, whose 2016 album at times sounds like a Frankenstein’s Monster made up of parts taken from Descendents, Bad Brains and other classic hardcore punk bands. By default, then, there’s a space for groups whose raison d’être is riot grrrl for today’s punk rockers, which has largely been unexplored outside of Seattle . Part of Sex Stains’ appeal does, in fact, lie in their recreation of the riot grrrl sound of the ’90s. Wolfe’s vocals, for instance, are 100% classic riot grrrl. This makes the contributions of Dumani and Andrews, which are more atypical of the genre, essential to helping Sex Stains sound unique. Wolfe’s lyrics are also less outright hostile than in her Bratmobile days, and sometimes cover topics unrelated to gender issues, like in album intro “Countdown to…” in which she recounts growing up in a dysfunctional household.
Nearing its end, the album veers almost entirely into experimental art rock territory, like in spooky surf instrumental “Confrontational,” or “Spidersss,” which has a bizarro spy movie quality that recalls early Fugazi. Some of these latter tracks lack the urgency of the album’s first half, including closer “Crumbs,” which is an unusual and anticlimactic ending to an otherwise powerful album. These experiments are commendable given that Sex Stains could likely have become successful solely by resting on their laurels and being a pitch perfect throwback band, but the risks don’t always pay off.
Also of note is that their original and provocative name becomes decidedly unsexy soon after listening to them play. 10th track “Sex in the Subway,” for example, rather than being the sex-positive celebration its name might suggest, turns out rather to be perhaps the bitterest track on the album, calling out specific problematic and abusive male behaviors. This track and other moments on the album like it make it clear that Sex Stains’ intention isn’t to titillate but to provoke.
Given their impressive pedigree—Dumani played on punk legend Alice Bag’s new album, drummer David Orlando was in Warpaint, and bassist Pachy Garcia also sings for L.A. noise rockers Prettiest Eyes—it’s no wonder that Sex Stains succeeds. Thanks to an approach that breathes new life into proven sounds and ideas, they almost always sound young and exuberant, in the way a good punk band should. It’s only when songs veer too far into homage on one end or experimental territory on the other that the album hits momentary lulls. As a whole, Sex Stains is an accomplished band that should be in conversation with bands whose members are half Wolfe’s age, not because of her importance to punk rock history, but because the music simply rocks.