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Veruca Salt versus L7

Sugar beats strychnine in the new-album sweepstakes

by Carly Carioli

[L7] 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, alcoholic cynics.

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").

"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.

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