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Off in Another World

Luscious Jackson

Fever Forever: The living is easy for members of New York's soul/rap/funk group Luscious Jackson.

Luscious Jackson leads a comfortable existence

By Gina Arnold

IF IT TURNS OUT that there is such a thing as reincarnation, I'd like to come back as either a Dutch girl or a member of Luscious Jackson. The Dutch live in the least-sexist society on the planet, while Luscious Jackson, the all-white, all-female, New York City­based soul/rap/funk outfit, leads an equally comfortable existence, thanks in part to its association with longtime friends and mentors, the Beastie Boys.

One likes to picture these ever-so-hip women as hanging out and partying in the New York University dorms with the Beasties--not as groupies, but as equals. Indeed, founding member Kate Schellenbach was actually in the Beastie Boys briefly, back when they were a hard-core outfit, circa 1982.

That association with the blockbuster boys' band got Luscious Jackson signed first to the Beastie Boys' own Grand Royal Records and later to Capitol. Unfortunately, although Luscious Jackson's sources (and resources) are very similar to those of the Beasties, the band hasn't quite been able to parlay its ultrahip associations into the kind of stardom the Beasties currently enjoy.

Luscious Jackson's music is more moody and tuneful than that of the raucous Beasties. It's based on a combo of '70s soundtrack soul music (think Shaft or Grandmaster Flash's "White Lines") and the smoother, groove-oriented sound of dance bands like Deee-Lite.

On its early albums, In Search of Manny and Natural Ingredients, Luscious Jackson, with its rhythm-driven pseudo-funk/rap, seemed intent on making fun of '70s icons and just having a good time. But the latest album, 1996's Fever In Fever Out, displays a much more personal bent. It's full of smooth, trippy love songs that wouldn't sound out of place on a trip-hop compilation or alongside some of those neo-lounge-jazz-boho-rock bands like Morphine, the Cardigans and Soul Coughing.

Luscious Jackson is actually much more sophisticated than those groups. Thankfully, there is not a hint of irony to be found on Fever In Fever Out (nor is there any mention of martinis). The record is Luscious Jackson's first major-label LP. It was co-produced by one of U2's Svengalis, Daniel Lanois, and the result is a great-sounding record full of the kind of seamless but subtle grooves that the more fun-loving previous work lacked. (Incidentally, legendary country-rocker Emmylou Harris sings backup vocals on three numbers, and although she sounds fine, a more incongruous pairing could not be imagined.)

As is the case with any band lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to grow and learn over a period of years, Luscious Jackson is improving in musicianship and inventiveness. Fever In Fever Out has actually generated a minor hit. Unfortunately, "Naked Eye" is a perfect example of the group's fuzzy perspective. "With my naked eye I saw / the falling rain / coming down on me," sings Jill Cunniff. "If I said it all, I could see." Huh?

That song is typical of the album's lyrical vagueness. Other songs, like "Take a Ride" and "Mood Swing," are equally deficient in rhythmic oomph. "Why Do I Lie?" differs from all the others because it's written like a regular song. Most of the tracks, however, build on a simple drum pattern with slow synthy keyboard "solos" and sound effects underneath, while either Cunniff or co-vocalist Gabby Glaser coos dreamily over the top.

It's a fairly unusual sound in today's rock scene, and not an unpleasant one. In the end, however, it's a bit hard to connect with. Most of the album comes across like background music, rather than rock.

HERE, THEN, is the rub about Luscious Jackson. Over the last five years, the band has managed to avoid all contact with other female-driven media movements: riot grrrl, angry women rockers, singer/songwriters, groovy lesbian rock, foxcore, you name it.

And although in one way this is a positive statement about the band--there's certainly no merit in being pigeonholed in one of those ghettos--it is also indicative of the band's shortcomings. Frankly, Luscious Jackson lacks the kind of issue-driven focus and depth that acts like Jewel, Alanis, L7 and even the Spice Girls use to appeal to a wider audience.

And it's not that there isn't a place for this kind of personal musical statement in rock, but from a distance the members of Luscious Jackson--with their New York background and groovy, highfalutin connections--seem so cool and remote.

Like the young Dutch women I've met who simply can't understand the vicissitudes of sexism, Luscious Jackson seems to occupy a far-off world where the living is easy. That is both the appeal of their music and what makes it so difficult to relate to.

Luscious Jackson and the Eels perform Friday (Feb. 14) at 9pm at the Usual, 400 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $14 ($12 adv.). (408/535-0330)

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From the February 13-19, 1997 issue of Metro

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