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When She Breathes It Will Be Her Own Air
284 · 6 July 00
Lolita Storm: Girls Fucking Shit Up
The good news is that apparently I'm not the only person who thought Shampoo's version of Girl Power was more compelling than the Spice Girls'. The bad news, though, the bad news. I don't expect to hear a worse album than this one this year, and only my faith in humanity's ability to constantly redefine the aesthetic boundaries of its own awfulness keeps the "this year" disclaimer from seeming ludicrously conservative. Shampoo's brilliant insight was that if you backed up two obliviously enthusiastic girls with no particular singing talent with one producer without much ego or shame, you could subvert cheesy dance-pop into a new kind of punk music. Lolita Storm's corresponding insight is that no drum machine is too broken. The "band", this time, consists of one producer and three girls (identified only by pseudonyms too inane to repeat) who one-up Jacqui and Carrie from Shampoo by not even trying to sing, opting instead to deliver their parts in a monotonous, braying chant with only the barest sing-song hints of melodic contour. The producer is Alec Empire, from Atari Teenage Riot, who should get some credit for finding a way to recycle some of his runaway loops that were too bludgeoning, undeveloped and charmless for ATR's own use. The drum parts are frantic past the point of rhythmic collapse, like the death rattles of beatboxes whose governors have fused, and when the group feels obliged to insert non-percussive material, which it doesn't always, it's buzzing two- or three-note bass-synth patterns which are "grooves" in the same sense that sine waves are portraiture. The lyrics are vulgar, unimaginative and repetitive, and mostly amount to hollow justifications of superficial sex practices that make Spinal Tap, by comparison, seem like cogent gender-role critics. This is the music of dissolute Powerpuff Girls stripped, at the onset of puberty, of all superpowers save the ability to lactate bile. It is not technically pornography (the live footage included on the CD is, lest you entertain misconceptions, merely dull), and that's as good a demonstration as any that our definition of pornography is immature.
And yet, I made up my mind after listening to Girls Fucking Shit Up once, and I'm now listening to it for my third time. I don't think there will be a fourth, let me be clear, but the balance between "grim" and "fascination", for me, is tilted toward the latter a few degrees more than I would initially have guessed. I haven't thought of an argument for Lolita Storm's redemption, haven't wanted to try, but that in itself is worth something. This is as close as I've come to feeling like my grandmother, who complained (with a petulant insistence that made it clear she really did think the rest of us were idiots for disagreeing) that music "today" is just noise. The difference, I hope, is that she could not disentangle her own tastes from cultural history, and so could understand neither how music had become noise to her, nor how anybody else could experience it otherwise. I still hear obvious links here to music I like: thrash metal was similarly fascinated with engine speed at the expense of traction, Shampoo embraced the no-instrument girl-group structure with similar defiance, and most obviously the Sex Pistols also phrased their rebellion in what was, according to the prevailing rules of idiom, a belligerently degraded argot. I fault Lolita Storm not for bothering me, but for, first, attempting to defy convention by brute force absent wit, and second, failing to realize that they've allowed themselves to be puppeteered by reverse psychology, and so have ended up making an implicit case against their own aesthetic that's at least as harrowing (and probably more convincing) than any patronizing lecture they think they've shouted down.
Chicks on Speed: Will Save Us All!
But I probably wouldn't bother forming an emotional reaction to Lolita Storm at all if I didn't have a handy example of exactly what I think they could have been. Sort-of-German trio Chicks on Speed are no better equipped, and suffer their own obvious lapses in judgment (including lyrics in which sexual candor substitutes for invention, several vocal parts performed by bad speech synthesizers and at least one human vocal part that sounds like it was sung in a shrill monotone and then shaped into a melody entirely by pitch-shifting), but their perversity is ambitious, so when things go wrong at least I don't have the sinking feeling that they saw disaster coming from a long way away and were just too lazy and/or stubborn to dodge. The brief advert for Stop Records that opens the album is cheerfully unforced surrealism. The cover of the B-52's' "Give Me Back My Man" is brittle and manic, and slides in and out of tune like a melting short-wave receiver. The grinding synth-thrash underpinnings of the bouncy "For All the Boys in the World" evoke Kraftwerk, Joy Division and the Sisters of Mercy, and over it the girls chant what sounds worryingly like their phone number. The mordant "Glamour Girl" musters a seditiously sultry, clanging techno-disco pout, like the ugly OCD private life of Aqua's "Barbie Girl" ("She brushes her teeth / Five times a day", admits the chorus). "Pedstang (Re) Issue" has been contorted into an abstract, meandering rant punctuated by pensive piano, insectival clicking and occasional blasts of white-noise. Their clipped, plodding remake of Daniel Miller's "Warm Leatherette" is a vivid impression of what Lolita Storm might still amount to if they learn patience and their own limitations. I haven't heard the original version of "Kaltes Klares Waser", by early-Eighties Berlin noise-punks Malaria!, but Chicks on Speed's version is booming and methodical, well-suited for any Teutonic dance club with low bpm requirements and no self-consciousness about dancing to a song whose lyrics bounce back and forth between asceticism (in German) and frank lesbian sexuality (in English), and include the line "Dig my fingernails into the armpit of America". "Yes I Do!" falls somewhere between Au Pairs and Gary Numan, "Procrastinator" is what Sleater-Kinney might sound like as an industrial band, and the robotic deconstruction of Delta 5's "Mind Your Own Business" makes Devo seem like Robin Williams in a rubber Tin-Man outfit. "The Floating Pyramid Over Frankfurt That the Taxi Driver Saw When He Was Landing" is spastic grandeur on the order of Shampoo backed by the KLF. And the record finishes with a distracted, muttering cover (the credits call it a remix, but it sounds like CoS added more than they kept) of the Cracker/FSK novelty-song "Euro Trash Girl", bled so dry of humor that it ends up sounding, to me, like the lost Kraftwerk manuscript from which Berlin surreptitiously extracted "The Metro". In a universe where I oversee all movie soundtracks, Chicks on Speed would be the band in Bandits, pretentious enough to use their own escape as a traveling allegory, and smart enough to be more dangerous with microphones than guns. Lolita Storm are louder, faster, brasher and angrier (as long as you don't distinguish too precisely between anger and petulance), but also harmless, the one character flaw no honest rebel music can afford.
Sleater-Kinney: All Hands on the Bad One
Here in the US, though, where most people (including many art students) think that art school is for learning how to use Photoshop and FrontPage, where all things are possible and so most of them never happen, where rebellion is an advertising style not a social imperative, and where independence is every bit as formal as government, we require rebel music to be made with guitars, and therefore Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss, who I'm sure would have made excellent Austrian art-nihilists, are forced to form a punk trio whose primary structural distinction is that they have two guitarists and no bass player. I'm probably the wrong person to complain, though, since the thing I liked best about Call the Doctor was how much it sounded like a post-Nirvana incarnation of the Go-Go's, and the thing I liked best about the more bracing Dig Me Out and The Hot Rock was that if I kept the discs inside their jewel cases they made no noise. Those of you whose Sleater-Kinney affections oppose mine are warned, then, that All Hands on the Bad One seems like a big improvement over the last two, to me, as if they finally started writing songs again, instead of calculating chord-changes via stochastic algebra or the I Ching. The fact that I like All Hands on the Bad One better, though, doesn't necessarily mean that I don't run out of patience with it almost as quickly. The last two I quickly wrote off as not intended for me, but this one is close enough to what I want from Sleater-Kinney that I find myself leaping straight from appreciation to resenting the albums it isn't, from enjoying these songs to missing the ones they still haven't written. I believe, obtusely, that Sleater-Kinney have a Talk Show in them, so it irks me that they persistently refuse to quit keening and produce their "Head Over Heels" or "Yes or No". The closest they come, here, are the charging "The Professional", guitar buzz mitigated by airy backing vocals on the choruses, and the sweet, self-contained "Leave You Behind". Many of the other songs are catchy in their own ways, but for me they suffer from an over-reliance on Corin's banshee wail, as if she can only imagine one answer to the question "What kind of song have we just written?"
Veruca Salt: Resolver
The gravest risk in asking spiky underground bands to join the mainstream, though, is that they might. After the muddy and influential American Thighs and the glorious crossover spectacle Eight Arms to Hold You (which shared my 1997 album-of-the-year slot with Everclear's similarly expansive So Much for the Afterglow), Veruca Salt's Louise Post and Nina Gordon took some time off to complete an acrimonious artistic separation, the terms of which apparently granted Louise custody of the name and Nina custody of the services of Eight Arms to Hold You producer Bob Rock. I doubt it will do me much good to wish for a reunion, and to be fair, it's hard to tell whether Louise and Nina's separate albums are so unnerving to me because they were made separately, or if Eight Arms to Hold You was just an irreproducible moment, and a joint follow-up wouldn't have been able to replicate its charm for me either. Enough of what seem to me like these two albums' errors complement each other in relatively clear ways, though, that I haven't quite given up on the idea that their synthesis might have been transcendent.
Eight Arms to Hold You struck an inspired balance, I thought, between triumphant pop and cannonading arena-rock production, and since Bob Rock's presence presumably accounted for the latter, Resolver, Louise's Rock-less return, ought to be the pop record. And perhaps, if she'd got Mitch Easter or Scott Miller to produce it, it would have been, but as engineered (and to a large extent played) by Filter's Brian Liesegang, it turns out to be even heavier and murkier than American Thighs, arena-rock in the dense, roiling, misanthropic Smashing Pumpkins sense. "Born Entertainer" is grim and churning, as if "Straight" and the verses of "Volcano Girls" were the only things worth salvaging from Eight Arms to Hold You. "Best You Can Get" has shuffling verse drums, shreds of keyboard sparkle and backwards guitar, but still reverts to monolithic surge in the choruses. "Wet Suit" is a slow, exaggerated quiet/loud anthem. The choruses of "Yeah Man" get off the ground, and "Imperfectly" is tantamount to a power ballad, but "Officially Dead" is blunt and labored, and "Only You Know" aspires to be a "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" with a flowery instrumental break in the middle. The muted "Disconnected" sounds like Louise ended up with it because Aimee Mann and Sinéad O'Connor couldn't decide which of them it suited better. "All Dressed Up" is whispery and tense, a Marry Me Jane lullaby with only mildly swollen guitar glands, but "Used to Know Her" gets completely sidetracked by its effects pedals, and after the shimmery mock-strings of "Pretty Boys", "Hellraiser", the finale, exists solely to frame the howling guitar hooks and hoarse yowls of the title in the choruses. Maybe ten years from now I'll look back on this production style with fond nostalgia, but for the time being I'm weary of it, tired of indistinct, bassy roar, tired of guitar treatments that sound like twelve Marshall stacks and no guitars or picks or strings, tired of buried drums and apologetic keyboards. I'm tired of hearing women with sweet voices screaming calculatedly, hoping to sound dangerous, and just reminding me how much better at that Fiona was. It bothers me how many of the ostensible relationship songs on Resolver lend themselves to anti-Nina readings, not because I have any reason to side with Nina, but making an album about how much you hate someone seems like an incredible waste of energy and songs. Worst of all, I don't trust this album's sincerity. Too many of these songs seem to me like they sound the way they do because Louise and Brian decided that was an advantageous way for them to sound, not because the songs themselves needed or wanted to. There is, of course, no objective way I can defend distrusting Resolver after having trusted the more-surprising Eight Arms to Hold You instantly, but I listen to one and I hear the music so clearly, and I listen to the other and it's drowned out by the noise of gears spinning.
Nina Gordon: Tonight and the Rest of My Life
You would never ever guess, without knowing through outside sources, that Nina Gordon's Tonight and the Rest of My Life is the one of this pair Bob Rock produced, nor that Nina was once in a band that put out an EP called Blow It Out Your Ass, nor that she ever belonged to anything that thought of itself as an underground. In what ought to have been a matter-antimatter collision, several of these songs feature both Bob Rock and Jon Brion, but either they found a way to avert universal annihilation, or else the sound of the universe being annihilated is a lot like Roxette, Madonna, Aimee Mann, Susannah Hoffs, the Corrs, Hepburn and Vitamin C being converted into a composite beam of pure energy which is then blasted at an enormous disco ball constructed by wrapping mylar around a neutron star. Brion plays most of the coy, giddy "Now I Can Die", which somehow infuses "Now I know the secret of the world / I am the girl and he is the guy" with ardent (albeit arguably lobotomized) confidence, and if Nina collected any scars in the breakup they've been adroitly covered up with therapy (or else they are below her knees, as otherwise they'd be visible in at least one of the liner photos). "2003" (which amuses me most if I think it came about because somebody realized that Prince's "1999" is not going to make any more comebacks) is more or less its own Natalie Imbruglia version. "Tonight and the Rest of My Life" is a prom slow-dance to rival Madonna's "The Power of Good-bye". "Badway" could be Charlotte Caffey's attempt to resuscitate Lita Ford. "Horses in the City" is maudlin and chiming, like an old 'til tuesday song remodeled with bigger drums and Brion's weepy pedal-steel. "Hold on to Me" might be a third Aimee Mann and two-thirds Wilson Phillips, and "New Year's Eve" is more like two-thirds Aimee and a third Michael Penn. "Fade to Black" is a minor variation on "2003", but the boisterous "Number One Camera" is as heady as Hepburn's "I Quit" or "Bugs", and "Playing records and posing in the nude" is probably my current personal pick for the year's most salacious lyric, not least because it reverses Shireen Liane's telling "You're looking through her records / While she's taking off her clothes". "Got Me Down" is shameless pop melodrama, "To Slow to Ride" is Aimee channeling the Eagles, and "Hate Your Way" balances Marry Me Jane and new-Veruca-Salt clamor. And the concluding cover of Arthur Dent and Sylvia Dee's venerable standard "The End of the World", with poised assistance from Aimee and Michael's band-mates Buddy Judge and Patrick Warren, completes Nina's fantasy in which her heritage is not Liz Phair and Hole and the Breeders, it's Natalie Cole and Debby Boone and the Carpenters. I'm torn. On one hand, this strange reverie is not very far removed from Colleen Fitzpatrick's slimy dream in which she's Britney Spears, so if I wanted to hate it, I think I could. I think I meant to, but these songs got to me before I was ready, and now I don't think have the heart (or is it the strength I lack?) to peel them off. If Nina Gordon is this convinced that Veruca Salt was a dream, maybe I'm the one misremembering.
Half Cocked: Occupation: Rock Star
And if, after all this, you still want a real rock album, too, by an unapologetic rock band whose normal clothes everybody else borrows for their costume games, the kind of band whose time almost arrived, once, for a couple weeks, when L7 had their hit, who doesn't incorporate hard-rock bluster into their music, they just play it, then here is the second album by the band that used to have my vote for the worst name in Boston, except I don't think they live here any more, and now that they have three women and two men, instead of two and two, the name just makes me snort. Even Half Cocked have absorbed some melody since their 1998 debut Sell Out, though, and if L7 had sounded like this, maybe the style would have caught on. "Wrecking Ball" is as much Joan Jett as Motörhead. "I Lied" crosses the Runaways with AC/DC and Anthrax. "Devil Shoes" can trace its lineage from classic Boston power-chord stomp à la SSD, the Bags and Malachite. "All By Myself" sounds a bit like an arena adaptation of Sarge's "Fast Girls", and "Glitter" could be a killer robot shaped like Letters to Cleo, but "Drive Away" is as pounding and incendiary as any of the Black Sabbath and Blue Öyster Cult songs I grew up on, cheerful handclaps and girls singing notwithstanding. "Comes Down" demonstrates how much the Pixies owed to metal, and how much everybody else from Boston owes to the Pixies. The nervous "Sell Out" cloaks its jerky Faith No More urgency in Lita Ford-ish flourishes and an odd undercurrent of Journey's arena sentimentality. "V.I.P." careens into Guns N' Roses territory, but "Breakdown" is old-fashioned metal from somewhere past Rainbow but short of Iron Maiden. And the album ends with the extended edition of "I Lied", which replaces the concise snap-shut ending of the regular version with a minute of monster noises and a splayed guitar-solo coda. I have the feeling, throughout Occupation: Rock Star, that I've heard these songs before, seconds or weeks or years ago, but it's a pleasant and welcome feeling. Towering rock songs aren't intended to be soothing, exactly, but I resent sleep, so I pick bedtime songs that struggle against it, adrenaline lullabies who whisper that together we can stay awake forever.