An associate of mine recently attended a performance of the smash musical Ragtime and was so amazed by what he saw that he felt the urge to go to the nearest 30-screen stadiaplex and smack the hell out of everyone coming out of Drop Dead Gorgeous. It's enviable how some people want to influence others just by observing a real work of art. And it's not just old-fashioned stage shows that can do that to you, either. After listening to Luscious Jackson's newest release, Electric Honey, I got the hankering to go to the closest Sam Goody and shake some sense into anyone walking out with a Britney Spears CD.
(Honestly, even if I hadn't listened to L.J.'s album, I'd still feel the urge to do the aforementioned.)
But just what makes Luscious Jackson so gosh-darn special? Well, at a time when young audiences are worshiping pop icons so false that their metaphorical strings are beginning to tear, Luscious Jackson is the real thing. The three gals that make up L.J. -- Jill Cunniff, Gabrielle Glaser and Kate Schellenbach (the fourth member, keyboardist Vivian Trimble, left the band in 1998) -- are female musicians who don't mire their music in teen corniness or the bloated pretension of Lilith Fair fairies. These girls are real role models! Lest we forget, these are the same women who sang their rendition of "Let It Snow" in a Gap ad and made it so playfully hip and sexy (what with Jill twisting her hips and shaking that tambourine!) that you actually considered buying a pair of khakis. It makes you wonder why this trio isn't held in high regard. But sadly enough, Luscious Jackson is a band that has been honored with only cult status. Only those who have looked beyond the retro, semicampy razzle-dazzle the band often incorporates into its music know that there is something more inspiring within.
When Luscious Jackson broke out with its first full-length album, 1994's Natural Ingredients, it was considered much too sophisticated, much too urban and much too nice to be lumped in with riot-grrrl anarchists such as Hole, Bikini Kill and L7 (a.k.a. the "in" crowd). L.J.'s M.O. as free-spirited white girls with a heavy R&B vibe didn't really pan out well for kids who wanted their music angst-ridden. Besides, other hard-rocking girl bands, such as the Breeders and Veruca Salt, were getting more attention. Its second album, the gold-selling Fever In Fever Out of 1997, gave listeners an idea that this band was more than an East Coast version of the Bangles.
Electric Honey once again has the ladies tapping their city-bred attitudes and making some vibrant music. The group begins the album with "Nervous Breakthrough," a song that continues in Luscious Jackson's tradition of creating tunes exclusively for roller rinks. It is on the next two numbers, "Ladyfingers" (with Emmylou Harris on backing vocals) and "Christine," that the trio shows its trademark knack for mixing folksy, romantic melancholia with dance-music rhythms, and performing it all earnestly. "Ladyfingers" is a hesitant love song that certainly speaks more on relationship tension than Natalie Imbruglia's oft-quoted "Torn." Sample lyric: "I bet you don't know that I could treat you right / That underneath the armor / There's another girl / She is standing with a suitcase / Ready to run."
But it's on "Christine" that Luscious Jackson shows it knows more about adolescent loneliness and longing than Britney, Christina, Billie and all the rest of those jailbait jawjackers, who are too damn young (and too damn successful) to have ever known. A moody, dry, probably semiautobiographical tale, "Christine" takes us into one teenage girl's introverted frustration. The line is sung: "When school nights kept her in / She listened to the records in the basement / Looking for something beautiful to sing to." That's something anyone, male or female, can relate to.
Luscious Jackson may be the first fem-band in which you can hear the group respect, rather than rip off, its influences. You can almost see the girls bowing their heads to such East Coast musical goddesses as Blondie's Deborah Harry (who makes an appearance on "Fantastic Fabulous"), the Talking Heads' Tina Weymouth and especially Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon. But you can also feel the love they give to New York hip-hop giants Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash when they get authentically jiggy on the electro-pop groovers "Alien Lover" and "Space Diva."
Throughout the album, you hear how Cunniff and Glaser are a yin-yang team of musical tastes in concert with Schellenbach's backbeat. Cunniff, who wrote ten of the album's songs, ventures into the guitar-rock thing, as evidenced with "Ladyfingers," "Devotion" and the album's finale, the acoustic pleaser "Lover's Moon." Glaser, who wrote the remaining five songs, mostly immerses herself in the club aesthetic, devising the breathy, come-hither funk of "Summer Daze" and "Gypsy." On "Country's A Callin'," in which the girls dare to venture outside the 212 area code for greener pastures, she even experiments, combining honky-tonk flavor with Bomb Squad-style beats.
Electric Honey should finally be the album that gives Luscious Jackson the respect it deserves. All this critical acclaim ain't gonna cut it. The band needs a massive audience. Even the album's title suggests why people should be hooked on these darlings: They're sweet, but they're also dangerous. --