BRICKS ARE HEAVY
Ever since Nirvana’s Nevermind swooped out of the Pacific Northwest and up the charts, practically every band with electric guitars punched into overdrive and an address within a few hundred miles of Seattle has gotten caught up in the major-label signing frenzy. Never mind that what gives some of these bands entree into the grunge club is nothing more than their flannel shirts. The club admits women too, and L7, the all-girl group from LA, is one of the bands that have ridden the wave of Nirvana’s success.
In its ecstasy over the next big thing, the music press may be pulling its punches in a misguided attempt to level the playing field: L7 may have something, but it just doesn’t live up to the hype. The grungy glow just can’t obscure the band’s flaws.
L7 and Nirvana have certainly crossed paths. Both had releases on indie label Sub Pop, and L7’s current Slash release, Bricks Are Heavy, boasts Nevermind producer Butch Vig at the board. But the association is only skin-deep. Nirvana is one of the only bands that actually deserves all the hype: their songs accommodate sophisticated mood swings, from nuanced pop melodies to Yardbirds distortion to cyclonic power chords. L7’s postpunk drone doesn’t even begin to approach their complexity.
Everybody in L7 can play: Donita Sparks and Suzi Gardner on guitar, Jennifer Finch on bass, and Demetra Plakas on drums. The rhythm guitar and bass manage to plant a heavy bottom with a downstroke fuzz, and on the fast tunes Gardner’s lead guitar buzzes across this distortion backdrop with a serviceable snarl. But the slow numbers simply trudge. Unable to negotiate a consistent hard-pop sound or goose the music into velocity metal, the band settles into fairly static rock noise.
L7 resists ghettoization as part of the “foxcore” movement, the current crop of female-led bands whose postpunk music is characterized by angry feminist content. But the scarcity of women in rock ‘n’ roll means that whether they like it or not, their gender is bound to be noticed.
L7 precursors, the 70s all-girl band the Runaways used their gender as a selling point. But their political differences aside, gender isn’t the only thing these two bands have in common. Like L7, the Runaways were trying to emulate certain influential bands but never rose above mere imitation.
The Runaways’ sex was part of their shtick, a marketing angle. Rounding up a handful of adolescent girls, LA producer Kim Fowley created the never-before-seen spectacle of leatherettes in platform boots and tube tops playing chunky garage metal. At the time the notion of an all-girl band was so suspect that Fowley included the line “All instruments played by the Runaways” on the jacket of their 1977 Mercury release Waitin’ for the Night. (He also felt compelled to take some credit himself, slapping on the brand “Produced and Directed by Kim Fowley.”) An early signature song, “Cherry Bomb,” was immortalized on the sound track of Eve Plumb’s post-Jan Brady trash classic Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway. The U.S. music press was not kind–writing the band off as a dog-and-pony show–and like the fictional Spinal Tap, the Runaways found their greatest success in Japan.
Most of the Runaways’ material was throwaway schlock, but the band managed a few genuine moments: Lita Ford’s sometimes inspired guitar squalls, Vicki Blue’s traveling bass on “School Days,” Sandy West’s power drumming. But if Fowley’s pubescent golem showed any life of its own, it was most notably in the person of singer and rhythm guitarist Joan Jett. In style and tone, Jett owed less to Fowley than to her idols Marc Bolan of T. Rex, Gary Glitter, and spiritual big sister 70s Detroit rocker Suzi Quatro.
But despite a few successes the vast majority of Runaways songs are simple-minded tunes stretched over stock rock skeletons. The music remained stripped down compared to the fuller 70s hard-rock sound of a band like Bad Company, and the band never caught on to the incipient punk influence of the Ramones. Even Jett’s later collaboration with Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones failed to spark any true innovation.
Like the Runaways, L7 is stuck in a middle ground somewhere between hard rock and heavy metal. At times they seem to be grasping for a Ramones-like sound, but their playing is too heavy-handed to reproduce that band’s joyous three-chord pop onslaught. L7’s bass and rhythm guitar follow a linear path, neither instrument diverging to provide a countermelody.
Its limitations aside, L7 does manage to drum up a few tunes to drive by. “Slide” is a raucous musical ride, with alternating vocals that create some real tension and release. The sexual politics here are one-dimensional (dumb boy/tough girl/boy gets drunk and stupid/girl boots him out), but by applying some nasty vocals, the band gives even lyrics like “From my garden I’ll pull your weed / Your stupid ego I will not feed” some bite. Both “Mr. Integrity,” a surfin’ spy whirl punctuated by frenetic bongos, and “This Ain’t Pleasure,” a serviceable evocation of Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes, have a likable energy.
Unfortunately delivery can’t always compensate for shallow lyrics, and L7 has more than its share of clunkers. This is hardly a fatal error (if even an error) in rock ‘n’ roll. The canon bulges with dumb lyrics sung with great heart. Bit in “Pretend We’re Dead,” an admirable stab at hard-pop melody, the guitar hook and nicely underplayed backing vocal is too smart a musical package for doggerel like “Turn the tables with our unity / They’re not a moral nor majority / Wake up and smell the coffee / Or just say no to individuality.” That “coffee” line is wrestled into place with all the subtlety of a Hallmark reject. And presented in Sparks’s monotone, the volatile issues of censorship and activism never rise above mere abstraction.
It could be argued that Sparks is “pretending to be dead,” but the same dispassionate style permeates “Wargasm,” a droner that never climbs out of the low-end mire. “Tie a yellow ribbon round the amputee / Masturbate, watch it on TV / Crocodile tears for the refugees.” The voice here is reduced to snide affectation, a sneer that fails to take the risks that would engage the material. It’s an exercise in political correctness that carries none of the visceral clout of songs like the Dead Kennedys’ “California Uber Alles” or the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen.” When it comes to angry political commentary, L7 are in over their heads; their complaining doesn’t begin to communicate the conviction of Johnny Rotten’s simple declarative, “We mean it, maaaaaaaaan!”
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare L7, or any band for that matter, to the Pistols and their legendary one-album opus. But if Nirvana is the yardstick by which all current grunge contenders are measured, L7 doesn’t come close. In “One More Thing,” L7’s most introspective piece, all the causes of distress are external: the phone, a flat tire, “politics messin’ with my right.” Straining toward profundity, it fails to muster any of the genuine dread and weariness of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”: “Here we are now, entertain us. I feel stupid and contagious.”
L7 opt too readily for reverb-chamber shrieks or a jaded-sounding flatness. The sneering delivery may be a preemptive strike against detractors saying they sound weak or girlish. It may be a conscious attempt at disdainful cool. Or it may be simply that the band lacks a good singer.
This lack becomes more apparent when you compare them to a band that’s got one–Pearl Jam. Nothing on Bricks Are Heavy approaches Eddie Vedder’s haunting specifics. Where L7 plays it safe, Vedder’s masterful clarity is all about taking chances. In “Jeremy,” his rich, twisting vocals bring to life a playground encounter with a frightened loner that escalates into violence. It is painful, poetic stuff, and Vedder manages to sound engaged without being precious. Compare this to L7’s “Everglade,” a vignette about a girl who ventures down into the mosh pit to dance, gets shoved around by a guy, then fights back. What could have been a knifing blast withers into an insipid retort, all delivered in a singsong shout.
In both their lyrics and their weak delivery, L7 hang back, circling their subjects at arm’s length. In the September issue of Vanity Fair, Hole’s Courtney Love accuses L7 bassist Jennifer Finch of stealing lyrics. It’s hard to decide which notion is more absurd: the idea of someone plagiarizing such inferior lines, or someone admitting to having originally written them.
The Runaways were no great shakes as lyricists, but their trashy exuberance made up in energy what they lacked in sensitivity. L7’s lack of depth would not be a problem if it weren’t so apparent that they’re angling to be more than just a head-bangin’ good time. They’re trawling for meaning, but they’re apparently unable to fully articulate their themes, and there’s not much indication of an evolving sensibility. They rely on high decibel levels and adequate musical chops, with no consideration for the nuances that set certain bands apart from the pack.
Repeated listenings reveal the ideas in L7’s songs as unsatisfying half truths: sexual adventures hinted at but never revealed, political stances that are only posturing, disillusionment that’s always outward-looking. “When I get mad, and I get pissed / I grab my pen, and I write out a list,” goes Sparks’s “Shitlist.” It’s a harsh invective, but it’s also a snap judgment that conveniently denies her own complicity in the moral universe–a cardboard “us versus them” mentality that preaches to the converted. Considering this lack of introspection, L7 may not have the reservoirs needed for the long haul. Whether or not they’ve got something to say remains to be seen.