Sunday, June 16, 2013

L7: Bricks Are Heavy (1992)



This remains a transcendent record. If you're already an advocate for the riot grrl movement, a brief but shining period when women-in-rock could be characterized as an unreductive "trend" that did not wholly involve the leering eyes-from-above of A&R patriarchy, then this seems obvious to me as its keystone. Suppose you're not, though. It really isn't relevant to anything here because this has nothing to do with any movement or any time period at all. Perhaps you think a song called "Diet Pill" could only be a missive from late-night infomercial hell of a specific period, but that would mean you haven't borne witness to its menace and swagger that fires up and over so much of what's defined as "grunge." Maybe you don't like Butch Vig's pervasive-at-the-time production style, which tends to flatten everything into a kind of stereo sludge (here and on Siamese Dream and Nevermind, and probably Garbage's records), though if his and the band's compression of joy, megaphone, and rolled R's on "Scrap" doesn't get you to lift yourelf up and pogo, you may be a total loss.

Maybe you didn't enjoy the '90s enough to think that the sound of the Beastie Boys boiling over -- complete with catchphrase: "break out the big guns!" -- on "Everglade" is a pleasant glide into the L7 universe. Or maybe you have metal and grunge problems; I sure as shit do. Like I said, this is sheer grit, sheer dirt, but it's beautiful -- my defenses go completely down for the schlock-shock riff that opens "Wargasm" and I'm convinced that if all these problems and prejudices don't evaporate for you when you actually hear this music, you just got pop music problems. Catchy as fuck problems.

One major element of this success is that the songs are consistently surprising, even if their production is just streamlined radio-friendly-unit-shifter cleaned-up rock mess (not much "fuzz" here, so to speak). "Slide" is a good example, rapidly exploring bottom-heavy angst, then getting bored or restless with that and moving on to Aerosmith slanging and then finally indie-rock muddiness, all with astounding versatility. The great theme of this band's career, thanks in large part to the snarling apathy in Donita Sparks' wondrous vocals (Suzi Gardner's too, but especially Sparks'), which are somehow hyped-up and apathetic at once, is the open contempt toward boredom itself, toward the entire stay-in-your-place, this-is-what's-expected-of-you mode of the world. "Don't preach to me!" Sparks demands -- she's not nasty, she's just direct, though she's quite capable of screaming and bending her voice to demand, but it's the band that does the duty of sinking us down into the murk and stabbing at us.

That might not make Bricks Are Heavy sound like a shot of utter pleasure, but it is. (And monkeys can fly.) It's bigger and bolder than its fine predecessor, Smell the Magic, in every sense -- and represents the all-time ideal of a commercial breakthrough, admittedly allowed in large part by the success of a lot of bands I don't like much, that's really uncompromised and bold. At under thirty-eight minutes, it's wonderfully quick and concise and races by before you know what's hit you. Moreover, it can boast the kind of classicist perfect sequencing that harks back to Brian Wilson's earliest explorations of what works in the LP form. I sadly don't own this on vinyl, but I can just imagine how great it would be when Side Two pumps up with the slow burn of "One More Thing," like coming back in after intermission.

And how brilliant that the melodic slow burn itself is so splendidly fierce. It may indeed be L7's finest cut overall, though there's a lot of competition; bassist Jennifer Finch, in one of her two lead vocals here, gets to explore the caverns in her hugely full-bodied singing and walks out with a benchmark of supreme passion undiluted by any of the moments competing for your attention here. In two lines -- "Politics messing with my rights / There's nothing to do tonight" -- she defines beautifully what should have been the essence of rock & roll in the '90s, and what set this band apart: that they "got" it, so to speak, unlike most of the groups that populated the "alternative" boom. They weren't just socially conscious, they were hedonistic, they called out bullshit, they sought pleasure, they sought the stupid and the glossy teenage doom and gloom of the New York Dolls and Todd Rundgren and the Shangri-Las. They were "it," and all the facets of "it."

But if "One More Thing" was the apex, "Pretend We're Dead" is the quintessential moment -- seeking and finding ultimate pop perfection in the unhinged. "Shitlist" and "Monster" are equally strong statements of purpose (the latter is practically Cars or Bangles if they'd been allowed to respond to the full range of their impulses) but "Pretend We're Dead" is the revelation. Underneath the noise, it's all pure pop music of the Ramones or Tommy James variety: pure exuberance. The catchphrases again: what's up with what's going down? And what explodes is the confidence. Grunge was so much about navel-gazing or exposing a false vulnerability. L7 is about assertion, independence, delirious bluster. They're David Bowie. They're Dion, circa "The Wanderer." Okay, fine, they're a little Patti Smith too; and while it would be egregiously unnecessary, and not a little reductive, to claim that "gender" is at the forefront here, gender is an inescapable preoccupation. Because there are lots of people who wouldn't accept a band that doesn't attempt to meet an audience halfway on that audience's definition of femininity -- we wouldn't have let a female David Bowie become a millionaire because we find female expression of individuality gross. (See: every time Madonna ever did something the public felt was unladylike; every time she dares to exist as a non-neutered female public persona above 40 now.) On "Pretend We're Dead," Sparks doesn't scream, she doesn't coo, she doesn't lilt, she just belts -- dripping with the smart, the cynical, the confident, the sarcastic. It's not that she doesn't give a fuck; it's that she doesn't give a fuck if you realize she gives a fuck.

We as a culture find that quality attractive in male rock stars; we're allowed to see eroticism in their command. I've long felt that Bricks Are Heavy was a major and brilliant record. Revisiting it recently has edged me closer to believing it's close to a masterpiece, and may in fact be a masterpiece. The only caveat is that there should be untold hundreds of bands like L7. There are, in fact, but we haven't gotten to hear them; their success is one-in-a-million. I love the Bangles and the Go-Go's but both exercised in far more conventional, traditionally "female" pop song roles. I love Madonna and Janet Jackson but theirs was/is a definition of a specific idea of sexuality and femininity. It's sad that things have to be so reductive; it's sad that there even has to be a paragraph here about the fact that we have to be careful not to give L7 credit for empowering things that a zillion other bands we've never heard of have done and are doing. But that's the only, and I mean only, reason this isn't an A+. And the next time I listen to it, it may be.

L7 (1988)
Smell the Magic (1990)

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