With 1994's Natural Ingredients, Luscious Jackson immediately set themselves apart from virtually every other band on the current music scene. Inspired by New York's late '80s purveyors of punk and hip-hop, Luscious Jackson combined those two often polarized musical worlds for a sound uniquely their own. Samples and break beats percolated underneath catchy guitar rock riffs and hooky pop melodies; Jill Cunniff and Gabrielle Glaser traded off raps with sweetly sung vocal melodies. Somehow it all meshed to create an intoxicating brew that wowed critics and sold about 200,000 records -- an impressive total for any debut act.
Of course, that kind of accomplishment can create a dilemma: Having already done something most bands never do -- pioneer a sound -- what could they do to take the music of Natural Ingredients to a new level?
Luscious Jackson's solution? According to keyboardist Vivian Trimble, it was to ignore those thoughts entirely.
"You have to sort of not think that way," she says. "You kind of just have to think about what you want to do and what you want to do next musically, because if you think about what's expected or what you should do or what people might want or how you have to kind of live up to the last one, you could just kind of dig yourself a hole."
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Instead, Trimble and her bandmates -- bassist/guitarist/vocalist Cunniff, guitarist/vocalist Glaser and drummer Kate Schellenbach -- focused on a few specific goals. They wanted to record live in the studio as a foursome. Chief songwriters Cunniff and Glaser also wanted to write their tunes differently, composing music and lyrics while playing guitar rather than building songs beginning with the beats, the approach often used on Natural Ingredients and the band's 1992 EP, In Search of Manny. And for the first time, they wanted to work with an outside producer.
"All these different elements conspired to take us in a direction that we didn't know where we were going to end up," Trimble says. "We kind of just had to go with it and see what happened."
What happened was Fever In Fever Out, a new CD that's markedly different from Natural Ingredients. The hip-hop and rock elements remain, but where the previous CD was defined by the sassy feel of tunes such as "Citysong" and "Energy Sucker," the new CD carries a decidedly warmer groove.
New songs such as "Mood Swing," "Soothe Yourself" and "Don't Look Back" flow smoothly along behind a sultry, funky vibe, while on tracks such as "Why Do I Lie?" the music sounds almost ethereal.
To create the new CD's sounds and textures, Luscious Jackson recruited Daniel Lanois, producer of such artists as U2, the Neville Brothers, Emmylou Harris and Peter Gabriel. Lanois took an active role in the project, involving himself not only in the usual recording and production duties, but also in collaborating on arrangements, suggesting instrumentation and playing on a number of tracks.
"This record is definitely a bit of, not a turning point, but it's a milestone," Trimble says, exaggerating the word "milestone" to deflate any pretense in her choice of words. "Daniel Lanois has this thing about wanting to catch the moment, meaning we would never do anything too many times. We would [cut songs] maybe three, four times at the most, because by then he would feel that the sort of spontaneity was going out the window."
"This was a marriage between us and Daniel," Trimble adds. "It was a real collaboration. I don't know what we would have ended up with if we had worked with someone else. I'm pretty sure it would have been something different."
Still, much of the development in the Luscious Jackson sound came from the band members themselves. Having toured behind Natural Ingredients for about 18 months -- the first extended live playing the group had done since Trimble completed the Luscious Jackson lineup in 1992 -- the band was eager to bring their live sound into the studio. As such, many of the basic tracks for Fever In Fever Out were recorded live in sessions at Schellenbach's home studio in New York City and Lanois's Kingsway Studio in New Orleans.
But the music isn't all that's changed. "Lyrically, there's definitely a shift," Trimble says. "Before, it was sort of about being confrontational and taking a certain stance. Now I think it's more about not seeing everything in black and white, but sort of looking into the gray areas and trying to make sense of them or trying to accept the ambiguities of life."
That comes mainly from Cunniff, who wrote most of the new CD's lyrics, with Glaser contributing the words on the songs where she's the sole composer. "I think what [Cunniff] felt was that on the previous record, working with songs that were based on loops and samples, where you sort of built up a groove first, then try to come in and place lyrics on top of them, there was something less personal," says Trimble. "There was something limiting about that lyrically." But if you pick up a guitar and write music and words together at the same moment, she adds, "what you say becomes much more from the heart."
Or as Cunniff herself has noted of the all-female band's latest product, "It's not a cynical record at all," adding, with a laugh, "You could say we've moved past the 'Men Suck!' phase."
Luscious Jackson performs at 8 p.m. Thursday, March 6, at Numbers, 300 Westheimer. The Eels open. Tickets are $14. For info, call 526-6551.
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