It says a lot about American culture in 2019 that a pair of queercore albums first released more than 20 years ago are as resonant today as they were back then. The albums, Personal Best (1995) and Captain My Captain (1996), are the two LPs that Team Dresch managed to release during the Olympia, Wash., band’s initial five-year run in the mid-’90s. The group has been sporadically active in more recent years, and with tour dates and new music on the horizon, the time was right to reissue the band’s catalog.
Olympia in the ’90s was a bastion of the Pacific Northwest DIY scene, where the four original members of Team Dresch—Donna Dresch, Jody Bleyle, Kaia Wilson and Marcéo Martinez—came up playing in various other bands, publishing zines and running record labels. The spark they discovered among the four of them coalesced into tumultuous musical chemistry on Personal Best, a 10-song burst of anger and angst that barely stretches past 24 minutes. It’s a political record, in the sense that the personal was necessarily political for the band members: queer musicians who refused to hide who they were at a time when fewer than half of Americans said they knew someone who was gay, lesbian or bisexual, and two decades before the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling that same-sex couples have the right to marry.
So of course Team Dresch were feeling raw and exposed. They vented their displeasure in slashing musical screeds about love and rejection, refracted through the lens of all the bullshit they faced by not conforming to the gender-binary, heteronormative world around them. With buzzing guitar riffs and battering-ram drums on Personal Best, the foursome takes unsparing aim at religious bigotry on “Hate the Christian Right!” and “Growing Up in Springfield,” where a teen love interest suggests that God can help with that lesbian demonic-possession problem. There’s plenty about unrequited love, and about finding the grit to ditch small-minded small towns, which was a standard ’90s punk trope, all delivered with fury and, at times, a sly, lacerating wit.
Though Personal Best is generally regarded as the band’s definitive album-length statement, Captain My Captain is the better record. (It’s also 15 minutes longer.) The songs are tighter, the lyrics more outward-facing and the musical dynamics more sophisticated as the band shifts readily between loud and quiet, fast and slow. With Melissa York swapping in for Martinez on drums, the updated lineup was just as pointed with its message. There’s a locked-in bassline and nimble beat framing ebb-and-flow guitars on “To the Enemies of Political Rock” as the musicians puke scorn at the sell-out/cash-in vibe that crept into punk when “grunge” became a marketing niche. They decry discrimination over a speedy beat on “I’m Illegal,” and embrace the accepting families they choose on “Uncle Phranc,” which features what is perhaps Team Dresch’s catchiest melody.
The quartet shores up fragile emotions through a bristling wall of guitars on “Don’t Try Suicide,” and offers a worldview that is at once concise and profound on “Yes I Am Too, But What Am I Really?” As caustic guitars skim along over a taut drum beat, Dresch proclaims, “Freedom is freedom, / it’s for all or it’s all for nothing.” As reminders go, that one is evergreen. At a time when regressive forces are trying to roll back the hard-fought gains of the LGBTQ community, it’s also all too necessary.