Molten Wax

L7
Slap Happy

(Wax Tadpole/Bong Load)

The women of L7 look and write songs these days as if the '90s took them for a hard ride and put them up wet, as the band's three remaining members clock out for the decade with Slap Happy, an album as heavy and crude as the black eyeliner around their weary, worldly eyes.

The beauty of L7 has never been pure, though it has been sultry, and menacing, and bitterly funny since the band's first album, Smell the Magic, was issued on Sub Pop in 1990, with raunchy cover art of a woman straddling a man's face, glowing with orgasmic triumph.

Budding pro-sex feminists and grunge boys with a hard-on for loud girls who play loud guitars liked their first whiff of L7, which established its street cred through witchy lyrics and ferocious if formulaic riffage with follow-ups Bricks Are Heavy and Hungry for Stink (also, "Shitlist," the band's stand-alone single on the Natural Born Killers soundtrack, is a sweet release of female aggression).

Now comes Slap Happy, which finds L7's muse a moody, two-headed monster -- part hard-rock goddess, part heroin hag. The album has its moments, and the first 200 seconds are most of them. "Crackpot Baby" opens with a guitar riff that rises to life like a time-lapsed flower, then elegantly stomps out a launch pad for lead singer Donita Sparks' fetching yowl. The bridge is a shamelessly big bite of the Breeders' apple, although the little-girls-on-the-playground vocals laid over ambient distortion is as cool and sweet here as the Deal sisters ever made it sound.

Judging by its lyrics, "Crackpot Baby" was written for some coked-up dude Sparks once made the mistake of taking home (all he wanted to do was babble until dawn). Sparks keeps her poison pen sharp and well-oiled throughout Slap Happy, as does the band's other primary songstress, guitarist Suzi Gardner, whose "War With You" contains several choicely worded declarations of vendetta against a former lover who spurned her for a spineless airhead with presumably perkier tits: "Hope her hands are soft/You're so easily bruised/Not too terribly bright/And she likes to be used."

Musically, though, the bulk of the songs here put on a strong front, but they're shaky underneath in a way that sounds exhausted, as if written in the waning hours of a grueling road trip. Bassist Gail Greenwood has quit the band, and she's missed. L7 tried to make up the difference by having Sparks double on lead guitar and bass in the studio, but a chunk is clearly missing from the band's bottom end. Besides "Crackpot Baby," the only song on Slap Happy that really works is "Freeway," an eerie, snake-charming ballad whose stoned, spacious tempo better serves the band as a trio.

While the album fails to put an exclamation mark on L7's brash statement, Slap Happy is a long way from a travesty. The sound effects from a dominatrix's dungeon that close out the album remind all fans that even on a bad day L7 makes wussy commercial rock give its thigh-high boot a tongue bath. Please, mistresses, may we have another? -- David Holthouse

The Scones
Do You Hear?

(self-released)

There's a lot to like about the new CD by the Scones. It's an accomplished recording of polished pop songs, made special by a considerable interplay of melody and chorus. Fans of the Crowded House/Split Enz school of sophisticated songcraft will recognize a kindred soul in Scones leader Martin Shears, a transplanted Englishman who writes and sings as if he washed ashore aboard an import bin back when New Wave was new.

But accomplishment can be a tricky companion. Too finely produced a performance, too polished an executed task, can turn art into craft, and Do You Hear? plays a lot of touch and go with such yins and yangs. The result is a pro-sounding CD in search of an amateur's passion.

Shears, to be sure, knows his way around a pop song, especially when his vocals play off bassist/back-up singer Jeff Owens. The CD's opening cut, "Everyday's a Saturday," proves the point with lilting vocal lines that mix and match nicely. Equally engaging is "A Lot Like You," one of the better songs Squeeze never wrote. But it's the simple, plaintive "Wouldn't Be Nice" that takes the Scones from clever tunesmiths to purveyors of honest emotion. Shears, accompanied only by a stark, Lennonesque piano, ponders lost relationships and the bittersweet emotions that chaperon change. It's a convincing effort that shows the Scones not only capable of finding their voice but using it to say something.

Some bands talk about the passion, while others pretend they've had it all along. The Scones are somewhere in between. Shears and company know how to make wonderful music. But is it music that matters? Not that Shears should start raging against machines or take to stalking Mill Avenue in trench coat chic. But the pop landscape is littered with bands that lived for major chords and charming harmonies, only to die quiet, albeit beautiful, deaths.

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