Friday, October 16, 2009

October 16: L7, "Bricks Are Heavy"

Artist: L7
Album: Bricks Are Heavy
Year: 1992
Label: Slash

Until the late 1960's, the cliché idea of "girls are to be seen, not heard" still had a strong grasp on the world of music. Thankfully, due to the efforts of performers like Janis Joplin, Patti Smith, Polly Styrene, Polly Harvey, and The Runaways (among countless others), women were finally "allowed" to be just as (if not more) loud, aggressive, and open as their male counterparts. As the 1980's came to a close and the stage was set for the musical explosion of the early 1990's, a handful of punk and metal bands fronted by women began to emerge on the national scene. Among these groups, few had as potent and furious a combination of power and musicianship as the wild quartet known as L7. Their name, which is NOT (contrary to popular belief) a veiled sexual reference, is in fact, taken from the slang term for "square" (ie uptight, traditional) and can be traced as far back as Sam The Sham And The Pharaoh's "Wooly Bully" and Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock." Years before the under-talented and over-hyped Courtney Love would attempt to assert herself as "the" female voice of the grunge movement, L7 was staking their claim to the title through their stunning sound and legendary live performances. Presenting influences from artists ranging from Black Sabbath to The Ramones to Blondie and Sonic Youth, L7 were truly a one-of-a-kind band. Though they had already garnered a small, dedicated following, it was their 1992 release, Bricks Are Heavy, that catapulted L7 to the forefront of the national scene and the album remains one of the most defining albums of the decade.

Though L7 almost always tend to get grouped in with the "Seattle Sound" of the early 1990's, the truth of the matter is, the band hails from Los Angeles, and they first began playing as a group in 1985. Perhaps the main reason that they are considered part of the grunge scene is due to their producer, the man behind Nirvana's Nevermind, Butch Vig. Understandably, the sound is clear, yet gritty, and Vig helps the band to perfectly convey their melodious musical mayhem. Though Bricks Are Heavy continues the bands' trademark punk/hardcore sound, there is much more of a heavy metal influence, and this would become the direction the band would follow on later releases. If there was a single moment that broke the band into the mainstream, it was undoubtedly the runaway success of the albums' only single, "Pretend We're Dead." The song cracked the top ten on the "Modern Rock Singles" chart, and it remains one of the most well known songs of the entire decade. The success of "Pretend We're Dead" sent the album to the top of the "Heatseekers" chart, and they received regular rotation on radio, EmpTV, and would later take a prominent spot on the legendary Lollapalooza tour. Truly, there is no other band that has had the mesmerizing sound of L7, and it is largely due to the exceptional musicianship and focus within the band members.

Though there had already been one change in the lineup, and many more would follow, the quartet featured on Bricks Are Heavy is, without a doubt, the bands' finest hour. The dual guitars of band founders Donita Sparks and Suzi Gardner remain one of the most defining and phenomenal sounds of the decade, and the chemistry between the pair is absolutely stunning. Switching between crushing chords and crunching leads, it is within the guitar tone and style where the heavier sound of Bricks Are Heavy becomes most apparent, and the pair are truly fantastic on every track. The interplay between the two is perhaps no more glorious than one can experience on the song, "This Ain't Pleasure." Sparks also remains known for one of the most notorious incidents in music history, as it was she, who at the 1992 Reading Festival, in response to the mud being throw at the stage, returned "fire" by launching her used tampon into the crowd. This attitude perfectly encapsulates the mood and music of L7, and this musical approach is one of the main reasons why they are are so significant. Playing one of the most powerful and menacing basses in history, Jennifer Finch is a music legend in her own right. With her sound and style, Finch re-wrote the books on what could be done on bass, and her work has influenced generations of female musicians. Rounding out the band is one of the greatest drummers in the history of hardcore/punk music, Demetra "Dee" Plakas. Able to play as fast or as heavy as anyone ever, Plakas is absolutely perfect on every song found on Bricks Are Heavy. Every member of L7 is truly superb on the entire album, and it enables the record to achieve an overall sound and impact that remains larely unparalleled to this day.

Though Sparks handles a majority of the lead vocals, Gardner and Finch also take their moment as the lead singer. Sparks' snarling, captivating voice present the ideal balance between attitude and melody, and in many ways, Sparks has the voice that countless hardcore female singers aspire to obtain. Suzi Gardner takes the lead vocals on a trio of tracks, and she is equally as brilliant as Sparks. Interestingly enough, Gardner's voice can be heard on another seminal recording, as a year before forming L7, she supplied backing vocals on the song, "Slip It In" for her friends' band, Black Flag. Regardless of who is singing, the lyrics of L7 are absolutely brilliant, whether they are singing about useless men or making stunning social critiques. In what can be seen as the perfect encapsulation of everything it meant to be a "Gen X'er," their hit single delivers the lines, "...turn the tables with our unity, their neither moral nor majority...wake up and smell the coffee, or just say no to individuality..." Presenting the flip side of their writing, the amazing song, "Shitlist" brilliantly sums up teen angst when Sparks sings, "...when I get mad, and I get pissed, I grab my pen and I write out a list...of all the people that won't be've made my shitlist..." This blunt yet fantastic songwriting, as well as the extraordinary style with which the lyrics are delivered are one of the key aspects that makes the music of L7 relevant and incredible more than fifteen years after its release.

Whether it is a pulverizing mosh-pit anthem like "Everglade," an edgy, old-school sounding punk number like "Monster," or the legendary sound of "Pretend We're Dead," few bands, regardless of gender, have attained the musical mastery that is presented on L7's Bricks Are Heavy. Truly one of the most iconic albums of the decade, it opened the doors for countless female performers after, and bands like The Donnas, Kittie, and Jack Off Jill truly owe their careers to the pioneering efforts of L7. Featuring as much aggression, distortion, and top-notch musicianship as one can find anywhere else in music history, to this day L7 still represent the pinnacle of the female presence in the "grunge" explosion of the 1990's. The reality is, the band had the perfect sound at the perfect time, and the presence of mega-producer Butch Vig ensured that Bricks Are Heavy would be nothing less than legendary. The mind-blowing guitar playing of Sparks and Gardner, backed by the unmatched rhythm section of Finch and Plakas stand today as one of, if not the, greatest female quartet to ever record. Easily one of the most straightforward and unrelenting bands in history, their stage antics, from auctioning off sex with a band member to "TamponGate" were as "real" and wild as the music that they played. Still standing today as one of the greatest albums ever recorded, L7's 1992 release, Bricks Are Heavy represents everything there is to love about heavy, aggressive music, and it remains one of the most influential and overall phenomenal records ever.

Standout tracks: "Wargasm," "Pretend We're Dead," and "Everglade."

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