Alice Bag’s debut album has been in the works for decades, albeit somewhat unbeknownst to Bag herself. The Bags, the pioneering late 70s L.A. punk band she fronted, never released a proper LP, only a compilation of singles after the fact. None of the Chicana rock ‘n’ roll lifer’s later projects — the satirical proto-deathrock act Castration Squad, the political pop of Cholita! The Female Menudo and others – resulted in fully realized works, either. She wasn’t particularly bothered by the lack of a complete record in physical form, though. Bag didn’t even consider going solo to craft one until recently.
But there’s no better way to describe the resulting work, Alice Bag, than as a career-spanning canon unveiled. There are furious classic punk blasts, deeply affecting ballads (one in Spanish!), a 60s girl group pop ditty, some dark and danceable numbers — in style, it’s immensely scattered.
So why does the album actually feel incredibly seamless?
Because Alice Bag is bound by the grout of Bag’s lived experience — as an educator, a feminist, a punk rocker, a mother, and a radical. Not everything penned is personal history: The cautionary domestic violence PSA “He’s So Sorry,” for one, was shaped by a friend’s story. But it’s intended as kind of calling-out of Phil Spector for being terrible (lest we forget, the man is a convicted murderer, and allegations of other assaults abound) using the very sound he coined, and that’s a taking-back tilt all Bag’s own.
The whole lot is filtered through Bag’s time-earned perspective and her firmly cemented ethos. We could say that about any artist’s work, really, that it’s tied together by their worldview, that people are sponges who absorb their experiences and surroundings and any output is overwhelmingly angled by their framing. But when someone’s been at it in various bands for this long and finally sits down to write a solo collection, it seems only natural what materializes would be akin to an anthology of everything they’ve got, all the songs and messages and creativity they’ve been holding onto over the years. With Alice Bag, that’s exactly what we get.
One can only assume the threat to “shove a number two pencil in your eye” on the melody-minded shredder “Programmed” developed out of her frustrations with the American education system — how it failed her as a Spanish speaker growing up, and how it continues to fail kids now for the same reason and more. Bag traveled to Nicaragua to study education reform in 1986, which she later documented diary-style in Pipe Bomb for the Soul. When she rails against the status quo’s lack of emphasis on critical thinking, she’s got not only Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the book that inspired her trip, on her side, but also firsthand knowledge of how the opposite is the better way.
And while Bag nods the ranchera singers her parents played her as a kid on “Inesperado Adios,” a duet with Cesar Castro of the Chicano-Jaroche group Camblache, the subject matter draws from watching of a former kindergarten student suffer educationally and emotionally when her undocumented father was detained for months, then eventually deported.
Bag also said she had one of her daughters in mind, once immersed in online role-playing games, when she wrote “Incorporeal Life.”
A likely favorite for nostalgic Bags fans, though, will be “Modern Day Sacrifice.” Here, we get the closest version of Bag as Violence Girl — both the iconic rail against the patriarchy and her eponymous 2011 coming-of-age memoir. Behind or beside that, probably, will be “Poisoned Seed,” an anti-Monsanto punk anthem she previously told us was rooted in the disastrous results of genetic seed modification. You can almost hear her go bug-eyed with anger on that one.
As visionary as the Bags were, though, don’t rest too heavily on that history. Even the punk turns are not quite “Babylonian Gorgon” or “We Will Bury You,” and they shouldn’t be. After all, this isn’t a Bags record. It’s Alice Bag. Remember that, or you’ll miss out on nearly 40 years’ worth of Bag’s pent-up creativity.