Tuesday, May 29, 2012
L7: Smell the Magic (1990)
The riot grrl movement was one of the cultural miracles of the early '90s, and what a pity that my suburban backwards southern modern rock station utterly ignored it (Garbage and Hole were as close as it came, and that's not much consolation); it seems almost unfair to play up or praise L7, one of the best bands of the decade, on the basis of their refusal to cooperate with rockist gender roles, but it's equally uncouth to ignore that element. You know what made this music special and empowering? It wasn't some reductive "women can scream and rock too" pandering to radio formats, L7 was empowering and heroic because they didn't give a fuck. It wasn't that they busted open gender roles and rewrote "the rules" or whatever, it was they refused to accept that those things even began to matter. They laughed in the face of the idea of pinning them down as "female music," of "female music" being a thing at all, which it isn't. But is it nevertheless fair for a privileged white male to say he finds this music galvanizing and glorious in some part as a result of that specific refusal to adhere to "tradition"? I certainly hope so, and I have to imagine it has some considerable role in explaining why I love this band's records despite never being (and still not being) a fan of metal, trash, "hard rock," virtually any harder-edged guitar-driven material. This, though. This speaks to me.
My affinity, for years now, has always been to L7's subsequent commercial semi-breakthrough Bricks Are Heavy, but that's mostly because I hadn't spent much time with their earlier work until recently. This second album, which was originally an EP but was later repackaged with additional tracks and now may as well be considered a stopgap between L7 and Bricks, is a gem. It's reasonable, of course, to be curious about why the sort of person who can't stand obvious markers like Zeppelin and Sabbath would love this, and no, it's not because it's "female music." It's the songs, man. Songs. They are almost painfully sharp and melodic, such a strong strengthening of their prior work, full of towering, leery menace that's also totally pop. So L7 appropriates the classic rock tropes without compromise, but also redefines them -- gleefully.
Donita Sparks, Suzi Gardner, and Jennifer Finch trade lead vocals back and forth but it's Gardner who makes the outlandish and throttling initial impression with her spitting out and screeching of "Shove," a splendidly nonchalant and totally assured anthem that captures that feeling of nightclub electricity in a tiny room like few recorded pop songs can. The aggression sets the stage beautifully, and it's not a stretch to imagine this all as a blistering live recording, on a scarring night to remember. "Fast and Frightening" has that nocturnal, dark mercilessness, Sparks letting loose whoppers like "straight girls wish they were dykes" and the magnificent manifesto "got so much clit she don't need no balls." But the hardness is deceptive; what it really reaches back to is rockabilly, especially Eddie Cochran and Dale Hawkins.
You really don't have to listen hard to note such clear-cut yet appealingly realized influences, quite apart from the towering guitar funk exercise "(Right On) Thru" and the outstanding garage rock "Deathwish"; and god bless them, in our 2012 context, for not being wholly indebted to Lesley Gore and the Ronettes as is now the parlance of so much surf-punk and hardcore, led by men or women. Nothing against those wonderful artists, of course, but it's so much more interesting to hear a band with a classicist rock & roll sound that's interested in riffing on the Monkees ("Packin' a Rod," sneering joy) or Paul Revere & the Raiders by way of the Ramones ("Just Like Me," boasting an unforgettable riff). There's even a place for British new wave, so unfairly disdained by most of the U.S. indie-rock underground of the period, on the methodical and bottom-heavy "Broomstick."
At its best, Smell the Magic causes a streaming out of hyperbole. The total headfuck "Till the Wheels Fall Off" drives on and on intensely, the sort of thing that generated the rock standby adjective "face-melting"; and the tormenting earworm "American Society," aside from anticipating the hit "Pretend We're Dead" with its riff, peaks with an honestly glorious refrain. And that one was originally an outtake!
Sweltering and exhausting, this is a stunning leap beyond L7's debut, and you know it's gotten under your skin by how fast it seems to skitter by -- at a mere thirty minutes, it feels much shorter. For me, this is so much more vital than anything produced by the concurrent grunge movement, and though my teenage self was happy with all the Pearl Jam and Hole and Live and Garbage on the radio, I have this perpetual feeling that I missed the actual '90s and the broadening of thoughts and horizons it might have given me because I wasn't turned on to L7 at the time. The same goes for bands like Luna and Pavement, but who knows -- if I'd been aware of L7 in my formative years, maybe it would have had such an effect on me that I would have a taste for classic rock and metal in my twenties! It's an outlying possibility, but this record is such a consistent and addictive pleasure I can actually imagine it happening. You never know, right?