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Prevailing wisdom has long held that Luscious Jackson is a funky bunch. Whatever that elusive thing is—the groove, the funk, the ability to sound black but still be able to hail a cab—the members of this quartet/trio are thought to have it coursing through their veins. How could they not? They’re all New Yorkers, after all—the kind who believe that the sound of the city has a rhythm all its own. The kind that, back in the day, didn’t allow their fondness for CBGB’s punk/New Wave to block their view of the boogie-down Bronx. Oh, yeah: And the all-female band’s drummer, Kate Schellenbach, used to be a Beastie Boy.
LJ should be thankful for the PR, because it allows them to flaunt a hummability that undermines the body-moving propulsion many people see as their forte. Over the span of one EP and three albums, Electric Honey being the latest, Luscious Jackson has offered insistent beats in songs that rarely bust a move. It should be noted that Schellenbach split with the Beasties during that band’s famous bout of homophobia and sexism. I don’t blame her, but she was a Beastie before the Beasties got the beat.
The fact is that the women of LJ themselves prefer to sway—back and forth, between a love of pop and a love of love, between their need for personal identities and their need to be identified by the city they live in. Their New York isn’t defined by fly-away breakbeats, street hassles, and forced-and-foiled miscegenation; those are just the things that keep the place interesting. To a large degree, Luscious Jackson’s Gotham, much like Chrissie Hynde’s Akron, has already happened. It’s a comfortable cocoon glossed over with the stuff they remember—disco, old school, affordable rent, Blondie. Crowd noise finds its way into “Nervous Breakthrough,” Electric Honey’s opening track, but the band shuts a window on it, pushing it deep into the mix.
The problem LJ has faced as the members have evolved into elder stateswomen is that the older they grow, the more they come off like white people dabbling ineffectively in groovy cliches. In Search of Manny, the band’s debut EP, benefited from the band’s status as an unknown entity; in hindsight, the slacker treatise “Life o’ Leisure” was ahead-of-the-curve relationship rock, and all of those flat-footed beats and stilted raps seemed like the product of cool nonchalance.
The band has not gone on to make truly crappy records, but it’d be interesting to see how someone unaware of LJ’s hipster credentials reacts to some of the stunts it pulls. Leader and songwriter Jill Cunniff is an affecting singer despite her weak pipes, and neither she nor anyone else in the band lets being an improbable rapper keep her from stepping to the mike—a potentially admirable tendency, if only they’d worry more about the types of lines that they can make pass muster.
Honey is marred by hiphop cliches that the band never turns on their heads. “Alien Lover” is too smooth for me to believe that the mid-tune rap is meant to be shtick or funny or ironic; if the band members wanted anyone to believe that they keep rockin’ till the break-o’-dawn, they don’t bother trying to prove it. “Friends,” basically a rewrite of a bad Chili Peppers ballad, is about the obvious. It starts: “I got my freaks to the east, got my freaks to the west. Let’s get together. Let’s celebrate.” No need to elaborate on how those lines flow; they don’t.
To a large degree, Luscious Jackson’s cachet is based on the idea that it was a pre-Beck hustler of pastiche-pop. Yet as the band has progressed, its music has become less sample-ridden and more linear; I fell for “Why Do I Lie?,” just like everyone else, but I wouldn’t laugh at someone who mistook the tune for something by Jewel. Daniel Lanois, producer of 1996’s Fever In Fever Out, the album on which “Lie?” appeared, turned out to be an apt accomplice. He saw Cunniff as a songstress, and he fluffed up the sonic pillows in a way that made her feel comfortable acting like one.
Musically, Honey pushes harder than Fever, but LJ has taken to Lanois’ way of looking at songs from above instead of from inside; sample squiggles and chunky beats are fine just as long as they don’t muck up the song’s overall ambiance. “Nervous Breakthrough”—fat bass, well-placed horns, a lesson learned—provides pure forward momentum. But there’s a song there, too—a dance track built for the bedroom. In “Christine,” the drum ‘n’ bass, the synth making like car brakes, the strummy guitar: They’re all accessories that sound stunning against Cunniff’s sad coo. Is it any wonder that these women got hired to pitch for the Gap?
LJ may need two ropes and a tree branch to swing, but it wouldn’t be fair to deny that it does well with the setup. These days, getting down is merely something Cunniff sings about. The songs are danceable, but functionally they’re just places to be. And the band is comfortable enough with its own pop smarts not to be bothered that those places may not be very complicated. Every time I hear “Ladyfingers,” Honey’s first single, I see the room where Cunniff’s made her home. Over there’s the stack of kiss-off letters. There are the Heart records she’ll reference, just for fun. A guitar. She’s smiling at the groove she’ll sing to. OK, I give. CP