By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
This bill could have been titled the Grand Royal Showcase of Failed Potential, if only Sean Lennon, Butter O8, and the Beastie Boys themselves were along for the ride. Grand Royal is still the hippest label around, but its rep was earned three or four years ago, when every release wasn't a little more disappointing than its predecessor. Luscious Jackson has as much to do with that as anyone else on Grand Royal's roster, consistently selling more copies of albums that are consistently worse. From 1994's Natural Ingredients to 1996's breakthrough Fever In, Fever Out to this year's Electric Honey, each disc swam farther up the mainstream until the group finally came to shore where Lilith Fair had its tents set up.
Hard to remember now that Luscious Jackson was, at one point, thought to be the Beastie Boys with ovaries...or something like that. After all, they were hip New York chicks that grew up hanging out with Michael Diamond, Adam Horowitz, and Adam Yauch at CBGB's and Max's Kansas City listening to bands such as Bad Brains and the Funk Four Plus One More, and ended up combining everything they heard on their debut EP, 1993's In Search off Manny. But maybe people were too eager to make the connection, since In Search of Manny was the first release on Grand Royal and drummer Kate Shellenbach played in an early incarnation of the Beasties. Still, back then, sample-heavy songs such as "Daughters of the Kaos" and "She Be Wantin' It More" made the comparison seem logical, or close enough to count. If nothing else, the members of Luscious Jackson at least did a passable imitation of the Dust Brothers.
But sometime between then and now, Luscious Jackson became a three-headed (keyboard player Vivian Tremble left last year) version of Sarah McLachlan, giving up the samples in favor of acoustic guitars and rehashed disco beats (check out Electric Honey for the former, and the band's sole hit, "Naked Eye," for the latter). Probably doesn't bode too well for Luscious Jackson's future that the only worthwhile music the band has been involved with in a while includes a jingle for The Gap, a song singer-bassist Jill Cuniff wrote for Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt's recent Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions ("Sweet Spot"), and "Fantastic Fabulous," a track off Electric Honey, which is notable only for making Deborah Harry not sound awful. Perhaps they should have spent more time helping themselves avoid the same problem.
Ben Lee, on the other hand, doesn't fare too badly on this year's Breathing Tornados. Well, that depends on how you feel about "Nothing Much Happens," which features a chorus that sums up the rest of the disc: "A lot goes on, but nothing happens." Seems young Ben has been spending too much time hanging with the cool kids (Lee's engaged to Claire Danes, Kids screenwriter Harmony Korine co-wrote the album's title track, and Sean Lennon, That Dog's Petra Haden, and Donovan Leitch appear elsewhere on Tornados) and not enough time writing songs, at least new ones. Every track on Tornados is little more than a lazy rewrite of "Nothing Much Happens," giving the album the feel of a remix record, and more to the point, a complete waste of time. Sure, Lee has been the darling of the indie-rock set since Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore released an EP by his band Noise Addict, 1994's DEF, on his own Ecstatic Peace label. But having semi-famous friends doesn't make an album any better. If only the rest of the Grand Royal roster realized that.