Bigger Than Jesus?

Most of the sniping on Chicago’s male-dominated music scene revolves around credibility, and Liz Phair and Veruca Salt–both female-dominated acts that gained instant success–are two of its favorite targets. Phair waged a brief battle, but after a slight sophomore slump she retreated into silence, refusing to tour or give interviews and dragging her feet on a third release; as a result, she’s not likely to become the household name her supporters expected. Veruca’s Nina Gordon and Louise Post took one last-ditch stab at indie cred last summer, when they recorded the dull Blow It Out Your Ass EP with Steve Albini. But with their second album, Eight Arms to Hold You (due out on February 11), they’ve dropped all such pretenses–and it’s the best career move they’ve ever made. The record all but guarantees that Veruca Salt will transcend Chicago squabbling to become bona fide rock stars on the level of Ministry and Smashing Pumpkins.

Last Thursday night at the Double Door, Post, Gordon, and company made a surprise appearance, opening for the dopey, leaden duo Local H. They played only four songs, all of them from Eight Arms, and introduced new drummer Stacy Jones (formerly of squeaky clean Boston popsters Letters to Cleo), who replaced Jim Shapiro upon the completion of the new album. This brief performance alerted the 400 or so alt-rock fans present to what the forthcoming album will reveal to hundreds of thousands across the country: the band’s come a long way since American Thighs, baby. Gordon and Post–who’ve been changing their hair color at a rate to rival Dennis Rodman’s–ripped through the songs like pros, obliterating the mere competence they displayed a few years ago. They were tight, energetic, polished, well paced, and assured, qualities that used to surface only in sporadic flashes. Even the gossip about them is big-time now–reliable sources report that Post is dating former Nirvana drummer/current Foo Fighter Dave Grohl.

And their music is bigger and dumber than ever, gleefully so. Eight Arms to Hold You was produced by schlockmeister Bob Rock (who’s also done time with Metallica and Motley Crue), and its commercial sheen is blinding. The band sounds huge–a trick it managed to replicate admirably live–and Rock’s production strikes a perfect balance between power and gloss. The dichotomy between the songwriting of Gordon and Post, on the other hand, has never been more pronounced. Gordon has mastered the sweet hook, but Post continues to play the retro pop-metal queen. While Gordon celebrates the simple pleasure of skipping along to David Bowie on her Walkman with a brisk, sunny melody (“With David Bowie”), Post performs awkward emotional gymnastics as she tries to give walking papers to a lame boyfriend; her overripe hard-rock bluster begs for flash pots and lasers (“One Last Time”).

Neither Post nor Gordon seems to be able to stop checking herself out in the fun-house mirror of fame. The album’s first single, Gordon’s ultracatchy rocker “Volcano Girls,” is a boldly self-referential rant a la the Beatles’ “Glass Onion”; as the bridge reprises a riff from Veruca Salt’s breakthrough single “Seether,” Gordon sings “I told you about the seether before / You know the one that’s neither or nor / Well here’s another clue if you please / The seether’s Louise.” By referencing the Beatles (Eight Arms to Hold You was the working title of their film Help!) as well as alluding to the Police, the Bangles, Missing Persons, Ratt, Boston, Lita Ford, and Joan Jett, Veruca Salt seems to be jockeying for position on the star spectrum.

Perhaps the album’s boldest statement to that effect is “Awesome,” on which Gordon unapologetically spits, “Fuck humility / We’re awesome / All the Salts go.” But on the album’s melodramatic closer, “Earthcrosser,” which also concluded the Double Door set, Gordon laments the price of that fame (“I hear the ocean / I hear the crowd / I’m disconnected / I am unattached”). Then, in a gag-inducing bit of for-the-fans pabulum, accompanied by one of the most over-the-top dynamic shifts I’ve ever heard in a pop song, she submits to her terrible fate: “It’s 2 AM and quiet again / Where’s my lip GLOOOOOSSSS,” her elongated articulation of “gloss” dovetailing with a ridiculous pedal-hopping crescendo. It’s an empty, almost arrogant gesture, but a grand one–and with a few more like it, it won’t be long before the Salts are gazing contentedly upon a sea of Bics.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Veruca Salt photo by Marty Perez.