Call it ’90s nostalgia, but I was recently having a conversation with a member of a major-label band formed during what he referred to as ”the grunge era.” ”There was this game you were supposed to play,” he reminisced, ”which was, ‘I don’t really want to be a rock star.’ It was really bizarre.” Emitting a cackle, he added, ”I’m so happy to see it crumble at the foot of Britney Spears.”
To my surprise, I shared his delight. The anti-fame shtick of early ’90s alt-rockers always seemed contradictory and self-righteous, especially when those very acts were recording for conglomerates and riding the Lollapalooza gravy train. It was also alienating — as Pearl Jam fans discovered when the band stopped subjecting itself to touring and interviews. What we’ve since learned is what we already knew: that it’s perfectly acceptable to embrace stardom and to make music that reaches beyond a cult. And while I’m not sure Britney Spears is the answer, what’s the alternative (pun intended) for anti-popsters — grinding out the same indie rock year after year with diminishing returns?
Since the grunge era, no one’s served as a better example of selling out than Luscious Jackson. In the beginning, they had downtown cred up the white-rap wazoo, thanks to their affiliation with the Beastie Boys. But in spite of an image that made it seem as if they were staring down the world, they’ve never limited themselves to a small audience. (Evidence: A zippy Gap Christmas ad that didn’t make them look dopey.)
Whatever their limitations as musicians, however much they conveyed a hipper-than-you attitude, or however aloof Jill Cunniff’s voice can be, all of it melted away in the languid beauty of ”Rollin”’ (from 1994’s Natural Ingredients), the lean groove of ‘96’s ”Naked Eye,” or the remix of ”Why Do I Lie?” on Good Will Hunting. With their cool-sisterly harmonies, street smarts, and wary approach to romance, they were nothing less than an oldfangled ’60s girl group transported to the bump-and-grinding ’90s.
With Electric Honey, their beefiest album, Luscious clearly want to capitalize on their heightened profile. ”Nervous Breakthrough,” a thick-and-chunky strut with tooting saxes, is like a loud, party-ready friend who bursts through the door, inviting all to join in. It’s one of many tracks that amplifies the trio’s funky-chick vibe without diminishing its power. I have no idea what Cunniff means when singing ”I’m an underwater fraulein/All I know is my rhyme” in ”Devotion,” and I don’t care; when the chorus kicks in, it’s smart-pop heaven, not unlike Blondie’s crossover-dream move with Parallel Lines.
Electric Honey also branches out confidently. The synth-poppy airiness of ”Christine,” about a sheltered teen who ”listened to the records in the basement/ always lookin’ for something beautiful to sing to,” is as new to them as the Lilith-style fare of ”Friends,” whose touchy-feely mood (courtesy of guitarist Gabrielle Glaser, whose singing lessons last year paid off) finds them letting down their guard. On ”Ladyfingers,” Cunniff admits ”I got heart” and backs it up with a track that simultaneously rocks and lulls you; Emmylou Harris pitches in for extra harmony convergence.
Electric Honey overplays the radio-friendly approach in the slick ”Fantastic Fabulous,” and someone should have told them that any song called ”Space Diva” — even if it’s meant to be ironic — should still be worthy of a diva. Deep down, though, Luscious Jackson are divas, albeit alt-rock ones. They’re not afraid to want the world, and they make that desire seem both worthy and necessary. Electric Honey stands alongside the Backstreet Boys’ shockingly good ”I Want It That Way” over the grave of flannel rock, throwing dirt on its coffin while looking to brighter worlds. A-