We once again climb into our Way Back Machine for this week’s Confessions of a Fanboy. I did not have any dreams to compel my selection for this week’s column so I had to work a little harder to come up with a topic. There was actually very little work involved. I put my iPod on shuffle mode and decided to wait until one of the more than 12,000 struck a chord with me.
Enter Luscious Jackson.
I discovered Luscious Jackson while living in Colorado during the mid-’90s. This, as it turns out, was not the best time of my life. It was actually a difficult period, or rather it became a difficult period.
Readers of the Harry Potter series are familiar with a magical object known as a portkey. A portkey is an object capable of transporting a person or a group of people from one point to another at high speeds and across a great distance. The kicker is that a person can stumble on to one of these without knowing it. For example, Harry touches an object at the end of Goblet of Fire not knowing it was a portkey and winds up in a duel with his nemesis.
Music can be a real-life portkey. Hearing a certain song has caused me to travel miles and years to different times and different places in my life- sometimes against my will. This is what usually happens when I listen to Fever In Fever Out. I remember things I wished I had forgotten or think of people I would like to forget. I don’t know if that will ever change. This album is probably forever cemented in a certain time and a certain place for me.
I was staying with my aunt and had not brought all of my things with me. Well… I brought all of my CDs. I just didn’t bring my big-ass stereo (big-ass by my standards and at that time) with me. When I wanted to listen to music, I was generally restricted to listening in the car. And it is a good thing because that is where I spent a not inconsiderable amount of time. I was listening to mostly alternative and grunge music at that point but still was prone to the occasional hair metal dalliance.
Fever In Fever Out reminds me of my light blue ’85 Subaru GL wagon and the Rocky Mountains. I used to spin this CD a lot making sojourns between Westminster and Colorado Springs. That drive. I used to hate that drive. It was usually happened late at night after having worked a full shift. Pitch black skies and an ass-biting chill in the air. I hated that fucking drive. Years of neglecting those memories have dulled how long that commute was but it was not short. I think I hated it less at night than during the day. At night on the highway, no one can see you when you’re singing at the top of your lungs along with whatever is playing on the stereo. Countless hours spent daydreaming, playing “air” instruments, trying to process reality and trying harder to find ways of escaping it. Can you believe I didn’t have a wreck on one of those nights?
So why was I driving between Westminster and Colorado Springs all the time? For a girl, of course!
Thank goodness The Wife to Whom I Am Married is far too busy with important things to read these humble scribblings. By now you are probably putting together that Colorado and The Wife to Whom I Am Married are two different people. And how. Something tells me this part of the column will not be her favorite. Go figure. Anyway, that is why I was making regular sojourns. I was living in Westminster and was seeing someone who lived in the ‘Springs.
This went on for a few months but as it turns out … Colorado and I were not a good fit. The process by which that was fairly awful. I’m ridiculously happy with the way my life has turned out and The Wife to Whom I Am Married and I have been married nearly six years and together for longer than that so this story does have a happy ending. I did not know that at the time, so I can assure you it sucked righteously at the time.
The hard feelings I held onto for so long are gone now. It stands to reason I put more blame on Colorado than I did myself because I see things from a distinctly me perspective. That said … I was no fucking picnic to be with — that’s still true today, just ask The Wife to Whom I Am Married. So I have forgiven that which needs to be forgiven. Unfortunately, I haven’t forgotten — not all of it, anyway. I wish I could because this chapter of my life has been over and there aren’t going to be any new pages added to it. There is nothing worth reliving and I really am over things to the point where there is nothing I need to avoid or hide. Time has a way of taking bitterness and turning it into ambivalence — that and I have a natural inclination towards “I could give a fuck.” I just want it to go away. Besides, it really was all her fault.
You might be wondering why I don’t just throw away anything that reminds me of those times, including certain CDs. You only need an explanation if you aren’t a fanboy. Why let a bad and ultimately failed relationship ruin great music? The music is still fabulous and the past is mostly a distant memory once you learn to live with an occasional hook through the navel.
So, like I said … I discovered Luscious Jackson while living in Colorado.
The musical climate was changing. The grunge revolution seemed to have died with Kurt Cobain and alternative music was looking for new faces. Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill and No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom were both selling metric shitloads. Fiona Apple was about to go into heavy rotation on MTV with her hit, “Criminal.” Sheryl Crow had one hit album under her belt and was trying to keep momentum going with her self-titled second release. The seeds of the Lilith Fair revolution were firmly in the ground and beginning to sprout.
Enter Luscious Jackson.
LJ had been around for awhile working the indie scene but I had not heard anything by them. I hadn’t even heard of them. “Naked Eye” changed all of that. Turns out, Kate Schellenbach had been a member of an early incarnation of the Beastie Boys. She left, formed Luscious Jackson with Jill Cunniff and Gabby Glaser (Viv Trimble would join them for a stint), and the band was signed to the Beasties’ own label. They debuted with a well-regarded EP, In Search of Manny. That was followed up by Natural Ingredients which did well on the indie scene but failed to break the band to mainstream audiences. “Naked Eye” changed all that.
What a great song!
I don’t remember the first time I heard it on the radio, but I do remember I never changed the station when it was played. I was working in a music store at the time (shocking, innit?) and asked a couple of my co-workers about LJ. One of my co-workers, I think her name was Dawn, knew of them. I liked “Naked Eye” and I got an employee discount so I bought the shit out of Fever In Fever Out. It turned out to be one of only a handful of good decisions from those days.
A lot of the things I would come to like in Luscious Jackson’s music can be found in “Naked Eye. It is (or rather, was) a great introduction to the band. The great pop hook made the song catchy as hell. It sounded great on the radio but still had its own personality rather than sounding like every other shit song. It also has elements of hip-hop without sounding like rap. I hate rap music but even my grumpy ass has to admit there is something compelling or interesting in the beats and sounds of a rap record. “Naked Eye” takes some of those elements and uses them without carrying any of the baggage that turns rap into shit. It is danceable without sounding like repetitive, shitty dance music.
“Naked Eye” has a subversive bent to me because it took a lot of styles and elements I don’t like, assembled them, and turned them into a song I love. How cool is that? It will not likely have the same effect on all of you. As I understand it, some people actually like rap music. Go figure.
I also love the airiness in the song. This is spring/summer music (although I discovered it in the late fall or early winter). Despite the presence of loops and bass and harmonies, there is still room to breathe. The beautifully layered vocals give the chorus more density than the verses but throughout there is space and it helps give the song a big sound.
Unlike some other female-fronted bands, all four of these women can actually play their instruments. Between the four of them, they cover guitar, bass, keyboard, and drums — but when you listen to some of their songs you will be hard-pressed to identify those instruments in the mix. Most of these sounds have been altered or filtered or distorted or computerized. That would be the work of one Daniel Lanois. I don’t know how LJ hooked up with Lanois but it is a partnership that works.
Songs like “Naked Eye” and “Under Your Skin” are great, fully-developed pop songs that are interesting to listen to and work on their own merit. The same cannot be said of all the songs on Fever In Fever Out. Several tracks, such as “Mood Swing” and “Don’t Look Back,” are soundscapes aimed at creating a vibe rather than existing as proper songs in the traditional pop sense. Lanois, a disciple of the great Brian Eno, excels at making those types of songs and records work. His guidance along with the sequencing of the album helps blend the songs and soundscapes into an album where the presence of both makes sense.
“Under Your Skin” deserved to be as big a single as “Naked Eye” and maybe bigger. It sounds so sunny and fun. It has a slightly more organic or traditional formula than “Naked Eye.” Guitars that sound like guitars are brought to the front of the mix periodically throughout the song. There is a difference between hearing a song you like and hearing a “hit.” Not every song I like has the sound of a “hit.” While “Under Your Skin” does not have “smash” written all over it, it should have caught on more than it did. I don’t remember if it was released as a single. It should have been if it wasn’t. It deserved to be moderately huge.
The other song you might be likely to have heard is “Why Do I Lie?” It was used in the film Good Will Hunting and was one of a handful of tracks not by the late Elliott Smith. The song features some of Lanois’ great slide guitar work. The effects he used on his guitar create a haunting, mournful sound.
The special thing happens with the combination of the vocal and the lyric. Cunniff’s sad, detached vocal work to magical effect. These lyrics, had they been delivered in emotive, overwrought, overheated, pop-diva emoting the song would have been sunk.
I would love to be better
I would love to be free
I would love to be perfect when you look at me
But instead I’m still crying
Yes, instead I’m still lying
Sad to say I’m still trying not to be me
The protagonist in the song wants to change. Change is not something most of us make for change’s sake. It usually comes about as a result of experiencing some sort of emotional pain. Rather than drowning in a sea of self-pity, Cunniff’s voice sounds a little sad but also maintains an edge of cool.
The temptation would be to get into some dimestore psychology. Did I listen to this song on repeat 10,000 times in the dark of night on the road to Colorado Springs because I have always liked the sad songs about “how my baby done me bad?” Or was it because somewhere in the recesses of my mind I knew I was in a relationship that was fucking doomed from the start and I was in denial about it the whole time? Is it ever really that simple?
“Why Do I Lie?” was one of my favorite songs on Fever In Fever Out and remains so to this day.
The three songs I’ve discussed thus far: “Naked Eye,” “Under Your Skin,” and “Why Do I Lie?” are the songs I listened to most often when I first purchased Fever. Since then I have come to enjoy several of the other songs on the album. Fever In Fever Out is where I would start anyone interested in checking out Luscious Jackson’s discography. Their other releases have some good-to-great moments but are a little more uneven than Fever. Fever is not without its flaws. There are places the album does tend to drag but the good moments outnumber the bad and outweigh them, too. They would have to in order to overcome the baggage Fever unfairly carries.
My favorite tracks from the album:
- Naked Eye
- Under Your Skin
- Water Your Garden
- Why Do I Lie?
This week was a whole lot more Confession and a little less Fanboy. The main reason I read fiction is to find out what happens at the end. It’s why I try never to see a movie before I read a book. Reading, to me, is work. Enjoyable work, yes, but work nonetheless. Movies are much easier. If I know how the book ends before I read it I am much less likely to go back and read it. That is why I have read all of the Harry Potter books except for Sorcerer’s Stone. I saw the movie first. This week, I wrote this piece not really knowing where it was going or where it would end. I was just along for the ride, just like all of you. Thanks for being here and doing this with me. Just one thing: will you still respect me in the morning?
So as this week’s Confession comes to a close, I put my Luscious Jackson CD back on the shelf and hope some decade-old ghosts go with it. They usually do. How sad is that? Even the Ghost of Mistakes Past thinks I am miserable company — not that I want them to stay or anything because they aren’t exactly fuck full of mirth themselves. This, boys and girls, is why I am tired all the time. I wear myself out. I have had a lot of practice at this. Soon all of these ashes will find their way back to the 80 percent of my brain I will apparently never use and there it will wait … until the next time Fever In Fever Out gets queued up on my iPod.
I am going to go get some ice for my belly button. I’ll talk to you next week.