Luscious Jackson

Double Door, October 24

By Cara Jepsen

Some years ago, while driving down our street, my mother pointed out a woman maneuvering a riding lawn mower. “It’s so much more interesting to see a woman on one of those things,” she said. At the time–I was 13–I wondered what in the hell she was talking about. But I’d think of her words whenever I saw people mowing their lawns. As usual, she was right–the men tended to mow with a certain bored arrogance–one-handed, with a tilt of the head that said, “As soon as I get this over with, I can play a round of golf.” But the women never mowed predictably; sure, some mowed like men, but some leaned forward aggressively, others were white-knuckled and hesitant. It was as if performing this relatively unfamiliar act actually brought out their personalities.

The lawn-mower theory can apply to just about anything we associate with one gender–who hasn’t been mesmerized watching a man comfort a child in public? Traditional gender roles haven’t been eroded so far that you see that every day. It can be applied to rock bands, especially in a live setting. Female musicians (and I mean those that play their own instruments) are about the only ones who can get me to force my way up to the stage anymore, even when they’re borrowing from the same tired rock conventions as men.

Luscious Jackson’s musical tricks aren’t exactly unique, but tired they’re definitely not. “We really can’t survive in a world where people only like one kind of music,” bassist-vocalist Jill Cunniff has said. Mostly the work of Cunniff and guitarist Gabby Glaser, the debut In Search of Manny (1992) is an inventive mix of sampling, hip-hop beats, soulful hooks, and even a few Ennio Morricone-esque guitar riffs. The 1994 follow-up, Natural Ingredients (so named because no men fiddled with it), has more live playing and includes more contributions from drummer Kate Schellenbach and keyboardist Vivian Trimble. Like Beck or Schellenbach’s first band, the Beastie Boys, Luscious Jackson has a knack for making the old new again by recombining its parts.

If there’s anything that gets boring about Luscious Jackson’s earlier work, it’s that the view of relationships with men is consistently contentious. Most rock songs are about relationships, and Lord knows there’s nothing wrong with a good I-am-woman tune, but if you’ve ever spent time with a group of women who want to talk about nothing but men, you understand the problem here. Even the best of these songs–like “Strong Man” (“It takes a strong man to stand behind a strong woman”) and “Energy Sucker” (“Hey energy sucker / I’m a goddess / Not your mother”)–which decently document the difficulty assertive women can face in male-female relationships, tend to blame the boy.

The new Daniel Lanois-produced Fever In Fever Out is a departure. The sound is fuller, with fewer samples and even more live playing (the group says that’s because they’re more comfortable playing as a group), and the lyrics are more introspective–everything’s not the boys’ fault this time around. Instead they emphasize personal responsibility, as on the hooky, undulating “Mood Swing” (“My eyes are open wide / And I will rise to fight you / My delight won’t be denied / Mood swing I can’t let you win”).

Live, Luscious Jackson was more confident than ever. Everything was more polished, from the set list, which was choreographed with a near-perfect mix of slow and fast and new and old, to the overall sound. And maybe because they are women, their confidence seemed like just that–not arrogance or bravado. Four (six if you count the percussionist and DJ they brought to fill out the songs) very distinct personalities were up there working together as a band. Cunniff, with a streak of blond in her hair, coolly laid down bass tracks and engaged the audience with between-song banter, alternately praising Chicago and the Yankees. Longhaired, feminine Glaser played guitar and sang with detached sultriness, never looking directly at the audience. Thin, theatrical Trimble played keyboards with a Mona Lisa smile, taking occasional swigs from a Bud long neck.

The androgynous Schellenbach was hidden behind her drum kit for most of the night, but during the second encore, when the band invited several audience members onstage, she left her drum kit and joined them in a friendly, bump-style line dance during a skeletal version of “Life of Leisure.” Her presence at the front of the stage (and perhaps the fact that she’s an out lesbian) set off the leader of a bevy of puffy, baseball-hat-wearing white guys standing near the stage, who earlier was yelling “Let’s get it aawn!” at the top of his lungs whenever Cunniff spoke between songs. “Look at that! She must weigh 200 pounds!” he yelled now, several times. Guess some people would rather mow the lawn themselves.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Gabby Glaser by Katrina Wittkamp.