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The hero we need

Punk legend Alice Bag is worldly, soulful and essential

After breaking punk ground in the ‘70s, Alice Bag just released her debut. Photo credit: Martin Sorrondeguy

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As of this writing, Bob Dylan has yet to really acknowledge being recently awarded the Nobel prize for literature, with the exception of a brief mention of it on his website, which has since been taken down. With fans of literature and music - and the tenuous interplay between those two arts - arguing about whether Dylan deserved the prize, is it any wonder that Dylan might be pondering this question as well? This is a man who has spent his entire career being lauded as the voice of a generation, a principled artist who takes political and societal stands, and whose music amounts to something far more important than the sum of its parts: an Important Person, in other words.

While I may think one way or another about Dylan receiving the Nobel, this whole situation has me thinking of what makes a musician important. How does a musician become a hero, and what does that look like? Coincidentally, an artist who I would consider heroic will be coming through Olympia next Thursday: Alice Bag. While the name might not ring a bell, to some, Alice Bag belongs on a list of the most influential and socially attuned musicians of all time. In the ‘70s, Alice Bag, AKA Alicia Armendariz, fronted the Bags, one of the first punk bands to come out of Los Angeles. The band would only release one single, but their appearance in the essential punk rock documentary The Decline of Western Civilization would cast their reputation in amber.

Alice Bag's career, after the Bags, would find her still involved in the music world, but her reach exceeded music's limitations, resulting in her second life as an author, activist, and educator. In her writing and activism, she dials in on women's rights, domestic abuse, and racial and social inequality. It took Alice Bag almost 40 years to finally release her debut album, a self-titled LP that dropped in June of this year. The album glows with richness and vitality, near-bursting with stylistically diverse songs that explore potent subject matters without ever coming across as preachy.

"He's So Sorry" does well to exemplify the album's penchant for subverting expectations. A riff on romantic girl group odes from the ‘60s, "He's So Sorry" twists the formula of that genre by focusing on a woman returning to her abusive boyfriend, while the Alice Bag and her backup singers warn the woman to stay away. The juxtaposition of the song's outdated style and harrowing lyrics, rather than being played for uncomfortable laughs, ends up creating a sorrowful, disturbing tone. Here, and elsewhere on the album, Alice Bag surprises with her soulful, worldly voice, able to slide into a number of genres with ease. Yes, there are a number of energetic punk tunes, but Alice Bag sounds just as comfortable on the baroque, achingly sad "Weigh About You," or crooning in Spanish on the delicate closer, "Inesperado Adios."

The rousing "No Means No" acts as an anthem for consent, following a date from dinner back to the apartment and the moment when a man crosses the line. Alice Bag shows here, and in the rest of her writing, that she has no time to pull punches. Whether she's exploring cultural issues or being nakedly emotional about her own experiences, she says exactly what she means. Her lyrics can have a poetry to them, but she is averse to mincing words. It's this quality, among others, that cements Alice Bag as a heroic figure, in my mind. She was groundbreaking 40 years ago, she remained invested in the world and in educating others for many years after, and with her debut album finally released, it's clear that she's just getting started.

Alice Bag, w/ RVIVR, ΓOCKNHO, Maiden Mother Crone, 7 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 3, Cover TBA, Obsidian, All Ages, 414 4th Ave. E., Olympia, 360.890.4425

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