Saturday, 19 July 2008



When it came to Riot Grrrl Babes In Toyland were always the band for me.  They were the first proper band that I ever saw live when they played the Hippodrome on Colchester High Street and when I borrowed this album from my friend and put it on a cassette with Meantime by Helmet on the other side.  This was a tape that I wore out.

Babes In Toyland were always a brutal proposition.  At a time when so many Riot Grrrl acts were posturing, they just did it.  And for that, for the longest time they were my favourite female band who I would defend to endless degrees while my apparently more knowing (more snobby) friends would tend to dismiss them.  Indeed when Sleater-Kinney arrived on our stereos I was heard to complain that they didn’t sound like Babes In Toyland.

In many ways Fontanelle was the album we wanted Hole to make.  And perhaps it was the one they could/would have made had Courtney not been so distracted (although she was certainly present her playing on the mind in “Bruise Violet”).  Also it never really sat completely comfortable with Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear, there was just something slightly masculine about the Babes In Toyland sound which felt thicker than the punky, hardcore, lo-fi offerings of the militant Riot Grrrl acts.  Plus they were on a major label (well, in the U.S. at least).

Wow, I have used the term Riot Grrrl in every paragraph of this review so far.

Co-produced by Bjelland and Lee Ranaldo this record is a blast, a force of nature from the off.  Very few ladies in rock have ever held a set of lungs akin to Bjelland and therein lay the band’s strength as her guitar playing, despite being ferocious and effective, was somewhat one dimensional.  Elsewhere in the mix the drumming of Lori Barbero serves as a strong weapon with its thumping and tribal take on percussion.  Barbero was always a wonder.

Coupled with the broken ragdoll cover art, there is something very bratty about this offering.  Bjelland always felt like a feisty little sister that could beat you up and with her came a brutal gang backing her up.  And with a guitar sounding like a motorbike it came with a raucous soundtrack.

As with all great albums it begins with a rocket, the star song and explosive entry.  Bruise Violet” is a driven and disarming track.  From the off something does not sound right as the drums and guitar tangle together thumping ahead of the air raid siren arrival of Bjelland and her verbal assault aimed at what it would seem is Courtney Love.  As it all ends with accusation “Liar! Liar! Liar!” emerging from this track I find that my sinuses have been cleared.  Seldom has anger ever been so sincerely captured on record.

From here the screaming toddler cum psychopath act continues/persists as the bubbling anti-lullaby “Right Now” exudes an earnest explosion and “Bluebell” offers raucous stabs with Kat still playing the part of a little girl having a demented breakdown.

At this point I fear from a male perspective I am being somewhat patronising and condescending towards Bjelland’s plight.  As a method of expressing and intimidating there is something slightly cartoonish about the execution, one that may not necessarily be taken too seriously in an adult world.  On that note it seems essential that all gestures be loud and hard hitting.  Here was an act more about play and proverb than explicit reference to the corrupt world surrounding.

Always a big favourite with crowds the uber aggressive rewrite “Handsome & Gretel” serves as both a colourful metaphor and effective lash out at the world.  In under two minutes tables were distinctly turned with the description of “a crotch that talks” taking control and care of business.

Having now whipped the audience into shape (into position) a grand and varied dispatch of fizzy and hook laden tracks push things forward expounding how it feels to be a domineering minority.  This is album about fight and explanation.

With “Won’t Tell” we enter tempered territory in alarming and disturbing fashion as Bjelland takes on the role of both abuser and victor seemingly going through a session of recovery with weird sentiment correction.  It’s a song about a bitch and a bastard.  Then immediately afterwards the side ends subjecting the listener to the twisting and haunting instrumental “Quiet Room” that plays out in the manner of blood splattered closing credits.

As the process continues side 2 opens with “Spun” and things feeling confused, placed in an aftermath of dissolution as Bjelland calmly sings towards a mood swing at which point the band violently erupts in accusatory fashion.  Does my penis make me a bad boy?

From here the record makes confident strides to the end as Barbero continues to thump in tribal rhythms that were never necessarily a staple of indie rock.

The eventual pair of “Real Eyes” and “Mother” ensure the record ends on a high as Bjelland offers awkward scenarios first via some kind of bus journey that ends in altercation culminating in spooky vocal exploration and echo before the latter delivers a punchy and affective explanation of personal circumstances seemingly addressing paternal and spousal doubt in an effort to serve females all over.  This anger is not just hormones, not just the rag.

Fittingly it all ends with “Gone” and the sound of smashing glass and high spirited exuberance that echoes misbehaviour.  Eventually the casual strumming peters out, much like the band.

Fontanelle is a blunt piece of work, a solid and singular succession of songs born more of passion than performance.  There have been better, more talented and intricate female indie rock bands but for its flaws and juvenile gestures this is a heroic handling, perhaps misguided from a mainstream perspective but exhilarating from all other angles.

Thesaurus moment: indelicate.

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