Looser, Better – Luscious Jackson Get Back On The Beat

by Matt Ashare
Boston Phoenix
October 24-31, 1996

Back in the summer of ’95, Luscious Jackson had the distinction and the challenge of being the opening act on the R.E.M. arena tour when it touched down for two nights at Great Woods. It was a big gig for a band who hadn’t yet proven they were anything more than the Beastie Boys’ little sisters. After their first night, I piled up unflattering comparisons. As spirited as they’d been, Luscious Jackson were the Runaways of the white-rap/hip-funk downtown scene — Bananarama to the Beastie Boys’ Fun Boy Three, for those of you who remember the Two-Tone movement. In a smaller venue, like downstairs at the Middle East (where they’ll return to play a gig this Halloween), Luscious Jackson’s messy mixture of lite-funk and loose, cut-and-paste riffs worked just fine. But dwarfed by a big stage, with bass and drums pushed way up in the mix, they didn’t generate much in the way of a real groove . . . until their second night at Great Woods. Instead of giving a repeat performance, the band dug in a little harder, relaxed a bit, and started grooving with gradual but distinct conviction.

Fever In Fever Out (Grand Royal/Capitol), Luscious Jackson’s second full-length (due in stores on October 29), sounds as if it started taking form the morning after that second night at Great Woods, fueled by an emerging sense of self-confidence and musical sophistication. The disc drifts into focus slowly and deliberately, with a mechanical electronic beat clanging almost inaudibly in the background like a distant subway train for a few seconds before a slight, snaky guitar riff surfaces, gliding smoothly over Kate Schellenbach’s steady drum beat. Jill Cunniff’s silky voice drops in, poised and sultry, with the teasing lyric “Wearing nothing is divine/Naked is a state of mind.” The song, “Naked Eye,” continues to accumulate texture, with echoing background vocals darting in and out of the chorus, electronic bleeps and blips bouncing in and out between the snare and kick drums, and a pulsing bass making a delayed entrance after the second verse — until it reaches a gorgeously groovy climax and recedes with Cunniff’s dreamy voice stretching out each syllable of “it feels alright.”

“Naked Eye” (which gets the remix treatment by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion drummer Russell Simins on the Naked Eye EP) is just the first hint that Luscious Jackson have come a long way since they helped launch the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal label with the In Search of Manny EP in ’92. Back then they sounded like an all-women novelty act who had minored in ’70s funkology and majored in kitsch as punk teens in NYC. And as refreshing as it was to hear Cunniff answer male slackerdom with the line “Hey energy sucker, I’m a goddess, not your mother,” on 1994’s more musically advanced Natural Ingredients (Grand Royal/Capitol), they seemed a little too much like Beastie Boy-toys riding in on the coattails of the Boys’ Ill Communication and that year’s “women in rock” hype.

On Fever In Fever Out, Luscious Jackson go a long way toward forging their own identity as a soulful, organic entity apart from New York City in-jokesters like Butter 08 and the Beasties. For starters, the disc eschews the hip-hop trashiness and faux disco chic that made Natural Ingredients more fun and less filling. Instead, they give us a lusher, more refined pomo dance music recipe that emphasizes mood, texture, and the luscious contours of Cunniff’s voice.

Producer Daniel Lanois deserves some of the credit. As a Brian Eno protégé, he’s always been particularly good at creating rich, otherworldly atmospheres with a distinct touch of New Orleans earthiness. But Fever In Fever Out isn’t as Lanois-ized as many of the discs he’s worked on (for Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, and Emmylou Harris, who turns up singing background vocals on two tunes here). This is clearly a group effort, with Cunniff (guitar and bass) and Gabrielle Glaser (vocals and guitar) providing the kind of moody, introspective, yet inviting songs that suit Lanois’s style, and Schellenbach powering each one with gentle but unyielding beats.

It’s the songs this time that make the most difference. Glaser and especially Cunniff (whose side-project departure into Joni Mitchell-style folk pop with Luscious Jackson keyboardist Vivian Trimble and Breeder bassist Josephine Wiggs in the Kostars year seems to have left a lasting impression) have realized that what made the ’70s pop they regularly cop from so memorable was the hooks, melodies, and emotional resonance. And that’s a little secret they might want to let the Beastie Boys in on.

Luscious Jackson appear downstairs at the Middle East next Thursday, October 31. The Josephine Wiggs Experience open.

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©1996-2007 The Luscious Jackson Source