It’s wonderful to think that in 1989, years before I would hear of this band, legendary producer Jack Endino (Soundgarden, Nirvana, Mudhoney, and on and on), or the phrase “riot grrrl,” Minneapolis band Babes In Toyland trekked out to Seattle to work with Jack Endino on their debut album, Spanking Machine, which would be released in 1990 on Minnesota label Twin/Tone Records. It’s also wonderful to hear that, even a few years before they would make their biggest mark on the scene with 1992’s Fontanelle, an album that only could have sold as much as it did in the major label gold rush of the post-Nevermind era, this trio had just as much energy, rage, and skill as they would a few years later.
“Why did you leave me/When I was still inside of you,” Kat Bjelland howls on the wonderfully angry “Pain In My Heart,” while her guitar scrapes along against the brick and metal of the cold, dark alley her voice is stumbling through. Digging out of her angst she picks up steam midway through the song to unleash a torrent: “Fry fucking fry fucking fry fucking my blue boyfriend.” It’s raw. There isn’t a lot of twenty-something angst that still registers much more than an eye roll in this mid-life shell of mine, but it’s impossible not to be pissed at The Man and really just everything when you listen to this.
Keep in mind this is five years before Sleater-Kinney’s debut album. Five! And this is significantly better. It’s far more well-crafted: the songs are more songy, the rage is better channeled but no less potent. Now, Sleater-Kinney would move on from this kind of sound for their second (and subsequent) albums, and for good reason given that Babes In Toyland had already broken up by that time and, in my opinion, basically mastered the riot grrrl thing. Now, I realize it’s kind of icky for me to compare two punk bands made up of three women each, but to be fair I really do think S-K’s debut album looks back pretty clearly at Babes In Toyland’s discography, a distinct sound I really haven’t encountered elsewhere.
There are some meh points here, notably in the middle of the album where I feel like they sequenced some changes of pace to try to break up the emotional and sonic assault they bring at the top and end of the album. “Dogg,” a bluesy dirge sung by drummer Lori Barbero, works, but “Boto Rap” and, though less of a divergence, “Never,” lose my interest a bit. But everything else you would get from Babes In Toyland on their later albums, like the raging, in-tune-only-when-we-want-to-be howls, tempo shifts, uncompromising lyrics, downtuned guitars, evocatively palm-muted guitars, and, amazingly, sing-along (scream-along) vocal melodies. It’s a great start to an all-too-short career for this band.
Mix: “Fork Down Throat”
Really Like: “He’s My Thing,” “Dogg,” “Pain In My Heart”
Like: “Swamp Pussy,” “Vomit Heart,” “Lashes,” “You’re Right,” “Dust Cake Boy”
Meh: “Never,” “Boto Rap”
Song Notes: After the jump
- Swamp Pussy –
- He’s My Thing – a stomper
- Vomit Heart – palm-muted guit at start
- Never –
- Boto Rap – It feels like a two-song detour to break up the album starts here, with only one of the two being really successful
- Dogg – Lori sings. Bluesy
- Pain In My Heart – Wonderfully angry
- Lashes –
- You’re Right – an acquired taste. at first seems indulgent but gets better the more you listen to it and hear the discipline
- Dust Cake Boy –
- Fork Down Throat – this and “Pain In My Heart” are probably my favorites. Though the first two tracks deserve to be in the conversation, too. It’s probably this one.