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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Babes In Toyland: Spanking Machine


1) Swamp Pussy; 2) He's My Thing; 3) Vomit Heart; 4) Never; 5) Boto(w)rap; 6) Dogg; 7) Pain In My Heart; 8) Lashes; 9) You're Right; 10) Dust Cake Boy; 11) Fork Down Throat.

Technically speaking, Babes In Toyland are not directly related to the «Riot Grrrl» thing — even though Kat Bjelland was originally from Oregon (what's up with those Northwestern states and dirt-rock anyway? is that simply the farthest corner where the wind ends up blowing all the «white trash», or what?). But the band itself started up in Minneapolis, around 1987, deeply up­setting the local frigid Scandinavian population — so, eventually, they just had to move to Seattle — and, more importantly, they did not have much of a political agenda. Which is not a bad thing, perhaps, when you are playing this particular kind of music.

In terms of popularity, they ended up losing to their chief competition — Hole (much to the leery delight of Courtney Love, I suppose, as she had actually been a «Babe In Toyland» herself in 1987, playing bass for a few weeks before being kicked out by Kat). The loss, however, was clear­ly the result of Courtney's scandalous publicity rather than the music: in most of the areas where the basic sounds of Hole and Babes In Toyland actually differ, despite all the similarities, the latter win out, hands down.

The band is essentially the brainchild of Kat Bjelland — drummer Lori Barbero and bassist Mi­chelle Leon are faithful henchgirls, combining sincere energy with enough technical ability to not let it all fall apart — and Bjelland's religious dedication to punk aesthetics prevents her from be­coming too much of a musician, even though it occasionally does seem to matter to her which particular chord should be chosen next. Their instrumental limitations do not allow to properly qualify the music as «grunge» à la Nirvana — they cannot generate the necessary density and heaviness, and come across more like an untrained, undisciplined, wilder version of Sonic Youth: their trashy, heavily drunk younger sisters or something. (Thurston Moore actually appreciated the unexpected kinship and had the band tour together with Sonic Youth in 1990).

Nevertheless, Bjelland herself has a certain rough, murderous charm (as opposed to the rather sick, poisonous charm of Courtney Love). In public, that charm was mainly due to the contrast between the «kinderwhore» image and the ferocious-hysterical vocals, making her one of the top contenders for «best wild screamer» of the decade. But even on record, without the fancy dresses and the bleached hairlocks (or is that natural blonde? who cares, though?), she comes out exactly the way she is supposed to come up — midway in between «tough street punk kid» and «rotten spoiled princess brat». Which means that the listener's emotions may easily roll between scared admiration and annoyed irritation, and the latter is a much stronger emotion than sheer boredom and indifference, which would be the worst outcome.

Most of the songs sound more or less the same — mid-tempo aggregations of post-punk distorted chords that cluster in rhythmic phrases as if against their will, and use every chance they get to dissolve in puddles of noise. But the guitar tones are genuinely nasty, and even if most of their song titles are quite suggestive, the honor of living up to the 100-point mark unquestionably be­longs to ʽSwamp Pussyʼ, because the song totally sounds like a «swamp pussy» — the guitar provides the swamp, and the vocals provide the... well, you know. (Allegedly, the whole album was to be titled Swamp Pussy, but apparently somebody chickened out at the last moment — never mind, though, Spanking Machine is fairly indicative as well). The first 25 seconds of the song, opening the album, are so indicative of everything that follows that it might be all the time you need to decide if you include falling in love with this band in your immediate plans, or post­pone it until your nearest lobotomy.

Kat Bjelland cannot sing — she makes Patti Smith look like Maria Callas in comparison — but she can conjure a mean little devil, and, more importantly, get him under her total control: she is a highly expressive and technical screamer, knowing full well where to rise and where to fall, and how to even make it sound natural. That opening "why do you make me feel so bad? why do you bother to act so sad?" is a classic example of «primal scream» — something deeply repressed for a long, long time finally coming out — and, furthermore, as much as I hate to admit it, it is sexy, perhaps even to orgasmic heights.

Most of the songs, as can be easily told, are about girl-guy re­lationships, where males are some­times objectified ("he's my thing, stay away from my thing, get your own one around!"), some­times humiliated ("why did you leave me when I was still inside of you?" — somebody needs anatomy lessons, Kat), sometimes adored and despised at the same time ("I do hate you, vomit my heart, pull my legs apart... but I still love you, my brain's a car­nival all aflame"). But if you do not pay much attention to the lyrics, there is no impression that this exorcism is really directed at anybody or any group in particular. This is just an exercise in blunt frustration-venting with an implied sexual motivation — and it succeeds.

Actually, after a couple listens, driven mainly by intrigue, you start to discern patches of melody and musical creativity — for instance, the band's first single, ʽDust Cake Boyʼ, is initially memo­rable only because of the way Kat screams out the retriplicated last syllable of each verse line, but then you might get to like the «galloping» punch of the rhythm section and how it keeps dipping in and out of the power chord mess that attenuates Kat's screaming. Or that ʽHe's My Thingʼ is actually not a bad example of primitive, but catchy garage-rock composing. (Come to think of it, one totally obvious influence I have not mentioned is the Stooges' Fun House — very similar in a miriad of ways, even if there is really no way these well-meaning babes could match the inten­sity of Iggy's hell flames. But on both albums, the scorched, smelly stumps of good melodies require taking some time to stand out through the smoke).

The album falters only once, but rather badly: for the slow-tempo, dirge-like ʽDoggʼ, the «honor» of singing lead vocals is ceded to drummer Lori Barbero — and she has this nasal, whiny tone that does not fit the general atmosphere at all. Just like Kat, she cannot sing properly, but neither can she scream — the result is a rather dreary, totally un-fun-like interlude, and, furthermore, the album's sequencing really sucks in the middle, with ʽDoggʼ being immediately followed by the equally slow ʽPain In My Heartʼ, a song that should have rather been given to Hole because it needs that extra rotting-corpse graveyard-punch which Courtney could have provided far more ffectively than the down-to-earth Bjelland.

But despite the occasional setbacks, Spanking Machine is still somewhat of a pervert master­piece of the genre, whatever that genre might be. It's loud, it's fun, it's angry, it's occasionally orgasmic, it doesn't give much of a damn whether it «succeeds» or not, it looks dumb but really isn't, it threatens to be boring but you'd have to be pretty boring yourself to honestly find it boring — in short, just a happy thumbs up and be done with it.

Check "Spanking Machine" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Spanking Machine" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. Your eclecticism is admirable, GS.

    "postpone it until your nearest lobotomy"
    After listening to Swamp Pussy and Dust Cake Boy I think I'll choose that option.

    "which particular chord should be chosen next"
    In fact I'm pretty sure of this. At least Dust Cake Boy is well constructed. It's just that I get tired very quickly of a vocalist non stop expressing his/her anger in the same way. That indeed applies to James Hetfield as well.
    So for me it's the worst outcome indeed .... especially compared to this:

    or indeed Iggy Pop.

  2. Lordy, George, you must have a real soft spot for generic faux-punk! Or is this a veiled allegory to start making points about the Pussy Riot trial?

    1. Uhm.. this is not faux-punk. Avril Lavigne is faux-punk. It may be generic, but it is not faux-punk. Disqualified!

  3. As much as i can't stand everything about Courtney Cobain in general, i should admit she did won this competition once with Hole's "Live through this" record. It was the only nearly genuine moment of her resume, that stands higher than any Babes record. They might be a better band on average and coming a bit earlier then her act, which ain't says a lot. No one of them is nearly nasty and rebellious to-the-end as Wendy O. Williams were once a long before them, or revolutionary significant for such as style, as Kim Gordon's Sonic Youth 80'es records.

  4. After listening to Pussy and Cake, I think I don't really care about this band (like I do for, say, YYY). But it sure was mildly fun while it's on. Maybe I'm just a sucker for any random energetic garage-rock.

  5. Nobody would have ever heard them if it were not for John Peel. Anyway, a great debut album with power and depth, yes, depth.