Sunday, December 01, 2013

Still Luscious

Full disclosure: as I've mentioned before, I was in a band in high school, the Young Aborigines, that morphed into the Beastie Boys. Kate Schellenbach, who became the drummer in Luscious Jackson, was our percussionist, added to our guitar/bass/drums trio to give the music a richer, more "tribal" feel. Jill Cunniff, who sings and plays bass in Luscious, was someone we had met in the downtown clubs who often hung around during our rehearsals and the dance parties, fueled by Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, Gang Of Four and early hip hop, that followed. The Young Abs dissolved in 1982 and no one could have more pleased than me when, a decade later, Mike D sent me Daughters Of The Kaos and In Search Of Manny, the first EP's by Luscious Jackson. Jill had joined forces with Gabby Glaser (guitar and vocals) and Vivian Trimble (keyboards) to form the band, adding Kate in on drums to supplement the sampled beats. Seeing my friends and former band mates using their rock star status to lift up other friends on their new Grand Royal label was a beautiful thing.

Even better was how fun the music was, with sultry vocals, funky beats, and catchy melodies. Songs like Life Of Leisure and Keep On Rockin' It became anthems around my house, while She Be Wantin' It More hinted at a more introspective side. The mixture of hip hop, reggae, pop and sometimes angular rock seemed the natural result of all the music we Hoovered up in high school, where quality trumped genre and making mixtapes with surprising juxtapositions was a skill we all aimed to acquire. Natural Ingredients, their first full-length, followed quickly in 1994 and, while the songs weren't all well-developed, the album was carried along by the grooves and found Luscious Jackson more confident in the studio and primed to make their masterpiece.

Fever In Fever Out (1996) found the women working with producer Daniel Lanois, who, after working with Brian Eno on several of the ambient master's albums, had become a producer of globe-dominating records for U2 (with Eno) and Peter Gabriel, while his work with Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris found them making some of the best music of their careers. I'm not sure how the two parties came together (strangely enough, Lanois doesn't mention Luscious at all in his memoir, Soul Mining: A Musical Life), but when I praised the combination to Mike D. at the time, he kind of laughed and said, "I told Danny, none of that haunted house shit." Whatever was said, it worked. I suspect that Lanois, while restraining some of his more spectral tendencies, pushed the band most on songwriting.

The result was a compulsively listenable album that brought all Luscious Jackson's strengths to the fore - grooves, melodies - while developing that melancholy streak that gives their music richness and depth. Lead-off cut Naked Eye became a top 40 hit and the band was catapulted to a new level of success. Unfortunately, as so often happens in these cases, bigger sales led the record company (no longer Grand Royal but Capitol) to want even bigger sales. On the next album, Electric Honey, Lanois was out (as was Trimble), replaced mainly by Tony Visconti, known for his brilliant work with T.Rex and David Bowie. Visconti brought both power and polish and, whether it was his fault or the touch of journeyman guitarist Dominic Troiano, the album often succumbed to an anonymous "college rock" gloss. The band soon disbanded and, while there has been some rewarding music from their camp over the years, they mainly pursued other careers and/or raising their families.

When I got wind of their PledgeMusic campaign I signed on quickly, convinced by the snippet of vintage, streetwise LJ they shared, and the fact that there would be no record company shenanigans. Whatever the internal process that led to the reformation of the band (still minus Trimble), the time certainly seems perfect, with all things nineties receiving reassessment and reissue.

Sidebar: Many reviews and other articles about the nineties resurgence refer to Grand Royal as the Beastie Boys's "failed record label." I would not be so quick to dismiss an enterprise that released albums by Sean Lennon, At The Drive In, Noise Addict, Josephine Wiggs, and Buffalo Daughter, not to mention charming Luscious Jackson spin-offs like Kostars and Ladies Who Lunch. It's always been my belief that the Beasties curatorial skills were in full effect with Grand Royal and what they were lacking was more of the left-brain stuff like artist development and marketing. As someone who has eclectic taste I can tell you that while I didn't love everything Grand Royal put out, I was always excited when another package arrived with that distinctive logo. Whatever was within, I knew boredom was out of the question. For a quick listen to the Grand Royal legacy, check out my 8Tracks playlist. Some of it is out of print, although Buffalo Daughter released a comprehensive career overview earlier this year. End of sidebar.

Needless to say, the PledgeMusic campaign was a runaway success, reaching nearly 300% of the required funding and now we have the resulting album, Magic Hour. The 10 song collection is bright, bouncy and chock full of grooves made for dancing. For sheer body moving power, the beats here trump much of the overworked, machine-tooled sounds that pass for dance music these days. It's most impressive that the organically funky sound was achieved with minimal assistance; most of the production is by Cunniff and Glaser, with help from Adam Horovitz on one song and ADW Young on another.

Love Is Alive may be the most unstoppable song on Magic Hour, with a killer update on the disco power of songs like I Will Survive, More, More, More and Don't Leave Me This Way. As great as the sound of Love Is Alive is, it also points up the deficits that keep Magic Hour from rivaling Fever In Fever Out. While lyrical sloganeering has been a part of dance music since before Chic put out Good Times, the phrase "When love is alive, you can rest assured," lacks the strength to be much of a rallying cry. The lyrics of most of the songs are built around stronger phrases like Show Us What You Got and Are You Ready? but fail to find any deeper resonances in them. We Go Back probably has the best lines, including the clever and emotionally connected chorus of "We go back, but we can't go back, but we can go on/We go back, and we'll always have what we had." Come to think of it, that's probably what was going through the minds of Cunniff, Glaser and Schellenbach as they decided to embark on a second act.

On the whole, however, the lyrics are fairly negligible without getting in the way of the monster grooves - except on #1 Bum, which is amusing the first time but inane the second. Not only is "You're my male J. Lo" awkward and forced, it's the one moment on the album where LJ sound out of date. One other note about temporality: while the sound of Magic Hour is fresh and crisp, representing a distinct upgrade to the murk of their earliest recordings, their range of influences has remained pretty much the same since then. I don't get the idea that the members of Luscious Jackson are taking in new music the way we used to at those parties in the 100th Street loft. So consider Magic Hour a delightful reiteration of the Luscious Jackson sound, rather than a continuation of the "anything goes" operating principle they followed to originally achieve it. Maybe that was the wise thing to do after 13 years off the scene and they will explore more adventurous sonics on the follow-up. Either way, I'm glad to have them back. Catch them at Webster Hall on Saturday, December 7th and remember to bring your dancing shoes.


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