Veruca Salt versus L7
Sugar beats strychnine in the new-album sweepstakes
by Carly Carioli
You'd be hard pressed to come up with a more clean-cut version of hard rock
than Veruca Salt's new Eight Arms To Hold You (Outpost/Geffen) -- a
spunky, ebullient romp that owes at least as much to the Bangles as it does to
AC/DC. Peppered with unsanctimonious metal riffs, sugar-rush melodies, and
splendorous multi-layered vocal arrangements, Eight Arms won't admit to
any stimulants stronger than youth and adrenaline. Even when singers/guitarists
Louise Post and Nina Gordon talk about "teenage medication flowin' through my
veins . . . causin' a sensation that I can't explain," it turns
out they're only freebasing through their headphones -- "fallin' in love, my
Walkman and me, with David Bowie." And if Veruca Salt's charmingly
self-conscious naïveté makes them goodie-goodies, that's infinitely
preferable to L7, who on their new The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum
(Slash/Reprise, in stores February 25) fall prey to their own worst impulses,
sounding less like über-bad-ass metal-wench Stagger Lisas than jaded,
Even when Veruca Salt crank up the volume and break out gnarly riffs, they're
still closer to Alicia Silverstone than to Joan Jett. "I could try to sing
until it rings but my voice comes out uptight," Post and Gordon admit on the
sparkling, dew-soaked "The Morning Sad." And later, amid the Zeppelin-stoked
swagger of "Earthcrosser" (the obligatory touring song), Post screams, "It's 2
a.m./Where's my lip gloss?!" They're not concerned with beating the boys at
their own rock and roll games so much as maybe catching their eye.
Recorded last June through September in Maui with Bob Rock (who on the basis
of his work here is forgiven for ruining Metallica), Eight Arms has the
sunny, vibrant feel of a heavy-metal summer camp -- and the gawky, wide-eyed
panic of post-adolescent drama. "Is this the weekend?/Is that your girlfriend?
No, she's green and innocent/You smoke her like she's incense," Gordon and Post
sing raw-throated on the thunder-struck opener, "Straight." Introduced with a
jeering howl of feedback and a pummeling bass rhythm that wouldn't feel out of
place on a Jesus Lizard album, "Straight" quickly reveals itself as chunky,
fist-pumping car-radio fuel, ripping off the "You've Got Another Thing Coming"
riff and subverting it into what might be the only straight-edge
heavy-metal song ever recorded ("You sleep better when you're/You eat better
when you're/You sing better when you're/You need me more when you're
"Straight" is just the opening salvo on an album that celebrates the "green
and innocent," an album for clueless teenage do-gooders aching to come out of
their shells -- sort of a soundtrack for a coming-of-age fairytale. "Forget
humility," Gordon and Post squeal with delight, "Oh, what's coming over
me? . . . Heaven help me I know it's so awesome!" On "Awesome"
and the Schoolhouse Rock-ready "Sound of the Bell" ("I don't wanna go down like
sunlight/I don't wanna go out like the moonlight/I don't wanna be found at the
sound of the bell"), the duo are like a pair of Catholic schoolgirls cutting
out of the convent for the first time. Or maybe like Janet from The Rocky
Horror Picture Show, because in the next song, the melancholic power anthem
"One Last Time," they're lamenting, "When you're nearby/I see you and want you
to try/To love me like a monster."
Eight Arms To Hold You shifts effortlessly from hooky
high-octane power pop ("Volcano Girls," "Awesome") to the AC/DC-ish swagger of
("Don't Make Me Prove It") to orchestrated balladry and back again, easily
surpassing in breadth and consistency 1994's American Thighs and last
year's Steve Albini-produced EP Blow It Out Your Ass It's Veruca Salt.
"With David Bowie" shows drummer Stacey Jones wasn't the only thing they stole
from Letters to Cleo (Jones replaced Jim Shapiro after the album was recorded)
-- there's evidence of Kay Hanley's protracted little-girl enunciation and
Cleo's kinetic rhythmic drive. On "Benjamin" and "Loneliness Is Worse," both of
which could go ballistic on AAA radio, they ape the '60s nods of the
Bangles/Bannanarama pop axis and split the difference between (solo-era)
Belinda Carlisle and Susanna Hoffs on the vocal delivery. If all this sounds a
little corny on paper, it's carefree and lighthearted fun on disc, bubbling
over with a sugarcoated euphoria that makes the Smashing Pumpkins' "1979" sound
like stoic, maudlin nostalgia. To quote heavy-metal defender Chuck Eddy on
AC/DC, "They never expend so much energy on not being pretentious that their
`sincerity' turns `important.' "
Which is to say they're not too earnest to make fun of themselves. Coy winks
and cheeky references abound: the keyboard intro from Guns N' Roses' "November
Rain" runs through "Sound of the Bell"; "One Last Time" is based on a Journey
tune and quotes from the chorus at the end. The album's title, of course, was
the working title for the Beatles' Help! (which they follow up on in the
Hawaii-inspired single, "Volcano Girls," by revealing that Louise is the
Seether, in the same way the Beatles dropped hints that Paul was the Walrus).
But there's no one laughing in the L7 camp. After a string of brilliant
punk-metal manifestos -- 1988's L7 (Epitaph), 1990's Smell the
Magic (Sub Pop), and 1992's Bricks Are Heavy (Slash/Reprise), in
which they recast rock's mythological bad-ass as a woman who had "so much clit
she don't need no balls" and effectively proved they could out-drink,
out-fight, out-rock, out-shove, and out-fuck anyone who dared get in their way
-- they seemed to hit an impasse on 1994's uneven, sludge-heavy Hungry for
Stink (Slash). The Beauty Process sounds like a swan song. The
frustration, detachment, and growing cynicism that colored Stink have
overpowered what was left of their tongue-in-cheek humor, their barbed-wire
social conscience, and their dead-on punk-styled muse ("Poetry's in motion, but
not in my mind," they sing at one point). Where Stink's "Andres"
succeeded even though it was about nothing -- because, as with the best heavy
metal, they let their guitars do the talking -- the new album falters not only
in its lyrics but in its music.
From a band who've always put a premium on speed, The Beauty Process
has trouble getting out of first gear. The distortion and the tempos drag, the
lyrics putter. Mostly the band seem obsessed with getting fucked up (which may
explain why longtime bassist Jennifer Finch quit to go back to school after the
album was recorded; aerobic optimist and former Belly bassist Gail Greenwood
replaces her). The only pronouncement of note is that they're "off the wagon
and on the town," and even when they're not singing about drinking they can't
keep the alcohol references from leaking in: there's a straight-up (if
comically cliché'd) love song called "Moonshine," a scattered rant
called "Bitter Wine," and a sickly dirge with the chorus "Must Have More."
What's left is unremarkable. The first and last songs are like "Andres," only
without a riff. The opener repeats the album title over a single Melvins-y
chord; the outro repeats the names "Lorenza, Giada, Allesandra" over and over,
faster and faster, over a near-identical clamor. The first real song, "Drama,"
is the album's best -- a buckling, hemorrhaging thrash riff decked out with
air-raid-siren licks and a low-end anti-hook. And though it's got the feisty,
habitually pissed-off rancor of vintage L7, this time that rancor's unfocused
-- it's just turned into a permanent chip on their shoulders: "One, one, one
and one is two, we got a drama . . . My piss is yellow and the
sky is blue/We got a drama."
But the real enemy on The Beauty Process seems to be writers' block --
which causes the album to take on a sense of formless dead and foreboding. "I
can't shake what's hanging over me/I can't shake it this brain freeze," they
sing on "Bad Things." "Something out there's messin with me." And the problem
might be even worse than that, as they grudgingly admit on the album's lone
bright point, the churning, anthemic, funny "The Masses Are Asses": "I still
get angry/I still get sad/And the losers still drive me mad/But I wonder if I
have anything to say anymore." Yeah, the masses may be asses, but not because
they choose Veruca Salt over this swill.