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Saturday, March 16, 2013

Babes In Toyland: The BBC John Peel Sessions 1990-1992


1) Catatonic; 2) Ripe; 3) Primus; 4) Spit To See The Shine; 5) Pearl; 6) Dogg; 7) Laugh My Head Off; 8) Mad Pilot; 9) Handsome & Gretel; 10) Blood; 11) Mother; 12) Dirty; 13) Jungle Train; 14) Right Now; 15) Sometimes; 16) Magick Flute.

For a band that only lasted for half a decade, releasing but three spotty LPs and leaving behind a rather ambiguous reputation, Babes In Toyland have a rather inadequate slew of «posthumous» archive releases and compilations — including, among other things, a trilogy of live compilations creatively called Devil, Lived, and Viled, published in 2000 by some obscure indie label or other. (Only mentioning these because there is no way I am ever going to review that many live albums from this kind of band — I can only guess that one of the label executives simply had a major crush on Kat Bjelland, which may be understood).

In any case, only a small part of this backlog is easily available these days. One of the earliest and most important is this set of live performances recorded for John Peel, who was a major fan of Spanking Machine and did much to promote the band in the early stages of their career. In fact, the original Peel Sessions, a brief EP with only eight tracks, was released as early as 1992; this here edition from 2001 is an expanded version that adds material from a couple of later sessions, the last one already with Maureen Herman replacing Michelle Leon on bass. Given John Peel's popularity and importance, this is quite likely the way that many Euro­pean audiences heard the band in the first place — so, at the very least, The Peel Sessions have some historical importance. And at most, they are kinda fun.

Could have actually been much more fun, though, if not for the questionable track list: apparently, the idea behind this BBC exposure was primarily to promote the latest and freshest, and this means that (a) there is virtually no material from their first and best, Spanking Machine, except, of course, for the one worst song on that album (ʽDoggʼ); (b) the performances of songs from To Mother and Fontanelle are, in general, quite close to the studio originals, with no time to re­hearse any variations. In fact, the track lengths are so eerily close to the respective lengths for the studio versions that I had to doublecheck whether this could be some sort of ruse — but no, these are indeed alternate takes. In fact, for those who dislike their Babes wrapped in studio echo, these versions might seem preferable — guitars and vocals slap you in the face on an «immediate» le­vel, without having to break through any further mixing conventions.

Only two songs out of sixteen are unavailable elsewhere: ʽDirtyʼ, memorable for being based on the riff of ʽHey Bulldogʼ transposed for grunge guitar (no great fun in any other respect), and ʽSometimesʼ, built on a swift descending pattern similar to ʽRipeʼ, but disappointingly sagging in the slowed-down bridge parts. Both qualify as standard-fare, listenable Fontanelle-era songs, but not as trademark solid examples of the «Bjelland hysterics».

One must keep in mind that 99% of whatever the Babes recorded live, they recorded in shoddy lo-fi quality, be it a local club gig or a major festival appearance, so if you are really interested in assessing their tightness as a live unit, this is your best bet, and they were pretty tight whenever they paid attention to it — the fifteen-second intro to ʽSometimesʼ, for instance, should alone be sufficient to dispel any rumors of Bjelland's unprofessionalism and anti-musicality: I'm sure Pete Townshend would have loved that chuggy descending riff and the subtle chord variations on each bar. The downside to this fine sound quality is that you also get to hear Lori Barbero's vocals on ʽDoggʼ in all of their unbridled ugliness, but nothing comes without a price, I guess.  

Check "The BBC John Peel Sessions 1990-92" (CD) on Amazon

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