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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Babes In Toyland: Fontanelle


BABES IN TOYLAND: FONTANELLE (1992)

1) Bruise Violet; 2) Right Now; 3) Bluebell; 4) Handsome & Gretel; 5) Blood; 6) Magick Flute; 7) Won't Tell; 8) Quiet Room; 9) Spun; 10) Short Song; 11) Jungle Train; 12) Pearl; 13) Real Eyes; 14) Mother; 15) Gone.

In general, this is To Mother expanded to full-LP status. Despite an important lineup change — important, because any change in a three-person lineup will be important, even if the third person is confined to dancing and tambourines — namely, the replacement of bassist Michelle Leon with Maureen Herman, Fontanelle continues the band's «Journey Into The Depths of Your Sexual Subconscious», under the ongoing mentorship of Sonic Youth (whose own Lee Ranaldo co-pro­duced the album with Bjelland).

Somehow the album managed to become their commercial peak — most likely, due to (a) heavy promotion on the part of Sonic Youth and on the part of themselves, with the band's wild, but no­vel stage act steadily gaining in prominence; (b) most importantly, the overall grunge craze — in the wake of Nevermind, this sound was bound to succeed, especially considering that Bjelland's guitar tones are now even fatter, crunchier, and dirtier than they were two years before. That «swamp pussy» sound of Spanking Machine is all but gone, replaced by the punk-o-metal doom growl that Kurt commanded us to love — and we (the people) loved it so much we ended up buy­ing 220,000 copies of Fontanelle in the United States alone.

And what now, in retrospect? Well, naturally, the seams are showing — whatever emotional ef­fect the album may produce on us, the reasons for that effect are immediately obvious, canceling out the desirable «creepy» vibe. Even a brief comparison of the album sleeves between 1990 and 1992 shows the unhealthy difference: from a stylish, subtly defiant photo they switched to a ra­ther dubious «Chucky-meets-Alice-Cooper» trashy aesthetics. Then there is the same thing within the album sleeve: confused quasi-Freudian imagery in the lyrics + dark, quasi-gothic guitar tones with more emphasis on how the chords are played rather than on which chords are played = a tho­roughly unnecessary pretense to «intellectualism» where, earlier, there was just some simple, brutal, basic, gut-level exorcism.

However, that does not mean that Fontanelle is bad — it is a firm step in a wrong direction, as far as I am concerned, but it retains enough primal punch to be consistently listenable for those who respect primal punch punched by professional primal punchers. For sure, it was wrong of them to re-record the instrumental ʽQuiet Roomʼ from To Mother (its three minutes should, at best, have been reduced to a twenty-second mood-setting intro to some other song); and the final ʽGoneʼ, with its slow tempos, feedback walls, and «atmospheric» or «symbolic» overdubs of breaking glass at the beginning, is understandable as a choice for the lead-out track, but pretty much unbearable on its own (once again — such experiments should better be left for Sonic Youth; it's not that they do them a whole lot better, but at least «it's their life», whereas Bjelland is just an uncomfortable stranger to this land).

And yet, when Fontanelle rocks, it really rocks. The sonic textures may be even more monoto­nous than they used to, the melodic hooks may be completely disregarded (intentionally disrega­r­ded — since the melodies here are influenced by avantgarde rather than minimalistic, but catchy garage-rock), but they still get by on the strength of Bjelland's personality. One of my favorite numbers here, ʽHandsome & Gretelʼ, managed to become a favorite simply because of the hila­rious vocal modulation, which includes everything from deep-throat roar to mock-falsetto irony — if anything, that is at least serious theatrical skill. ʽBruise Violetʼ is a great album opener, jackhammering the song's maligned victim (some suggested that the victim in question was Court­ney Love, which Bjelland naturally denied in public, in the light of lines like "you fucking bitch I hope your insides rot", etc.) into oblivion, with a few well-placed echoey calls of «liar, liar, liar!» diversifying the mood — now you're playful, now you're vengeful, and now you're down­right psychotic. This is something that needs a Kat Bjelland for comfort; nobody in Sonic Youth possessed that sort of back alley devil inside them.

In short, to sum it all up in a transparent hyperbolic manner, you probably haven't lived your life to the fullest if you never heard Kat scream out "YOU'RE DEAD MEAT MOTHERFUCKER YOU DON'T TRY TO RAPE A GODDESS" at the top of her lungs during the climax to ʽBlue­bellʼ — this ain't «music», really, more like «spiritual history», but it's the little things like that which make Fontanelle an important, and quite exciting, document of its epoch. Even the obli­gatory Lori Barbero vocal spotlight this time is tolerable, as the lady is playing Patti Smith's little sister on the tempo-varying ʽMagick Fluteʼ.

Additionally, I refrain from making any definitive comments on the actual music content here, because this would require more trained and attentive ears — I don't «get» these melodies as dis­tinct entities in their own rights, but somebody else might: this is not generic hardcore or poorly masked formulaic blues-rock, with at least some of the guitar / bass interplay quite carefully con­structed and occasionally steered in the «punk jazz» department of Primus and the like. Not that the girls are seriously / notably growing as technically skilled players or anything — the only point is that there may be more to this music than what immediately meets, and blackens, the naked eye. From that point of view, my thumbs up come both as overdue payment for Bjelland's fiery spirit — and possible advance payment for potential future revelations.

Check "Fontanelle" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Fontanelle" (MP3) on Amazon

1 comment:

  1. A quick comment about this being babes in toyland's commercial peak, this wasn't the case in the US, where the major label, proper follow-up was their best selling record. It was only true in the UK and entirely down the patronage of BBC radio-one, legendary DJ John Peel. His listeners, practially alone, propelled this album to the UK album charts.

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