Without accusing her of selling out, Brody Dalle (not Armstrong!) is the latest in a line of avatars selected by their respective record companies to be the Next Big Thing.
Major companies want to have artists perceived as being revolutionary, but they don't want to incite real revolutions. After all, when Nirvana spun out of control in the early '90s, it must also have been somewhat embarrassing for Geffen to be caught with its pants down and, like all the other majors, still promoting bands like Jackyl.
Ideally, the Next Big Thing should be different enough to get normally apathetic people worked up enough to buy more music, but not so different as to undermine the market value of previously established artists of, er, varying aesthetic persuasions (Hello, Nirvana! Goodbye, Jackyl!).
In recent years, at least since the advent of Alanis Morissette, we've had a lot of company-sponsored female Next Big Things, with varying degrees of artistic and commercial success. Artistically, they've ranged from the okay (Nikka Costa, Avril Lavigne) to the really quite-good (Pink) to the "O, Britney, Britney! Wherefore art thou, Britney?" dreck (Michelle Branch).
In that sense, Brody Dalle fits in well with the higher echelons of that diverse company: she's not much of a formal innovator, but she plays old forms with a lot of verve. Should the Distillers break, Warner Bros. certainly has a roster of somewhat similar punk artists in their stable to follow with; it wouldn't mean the haphazard signing frenzy of anyone in a flannel that followed in Nirvana's wake.
I hate to use this comparison, because so many female rockers -- especially if they have raspy voices, play loud, and are brunettes -- are compared to Joan Jett that the comparison's become almost a thoughtless rite of passage for any pissed-off female musician. Here, though, and I really mean it, Dalle sounds a lot like Joan Jett. Especially Joan Jett from 1994's Pure and Simple. In the wake of grunge, Jett pumped up her already-pumped-up sound and collaborated with disciples like Kathleen Hanna, creating an album that, on the surface, sounded harder and louder than anything she'd done before. Incidentally, that album, like Coral Fang, was also released by Warner Bros.
And that, more than even the strong vocal similarities, is what makes Dalle so much like Jett: not since Jett has such a potentially iconic female rocker who emerged from the punk scene played heavy metal with such abandon. Not heavy metal with knowing postmodern gender role reversals like the Donnas, not even heavy metal as one of the influences in a deliberate, effective art-rock project like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. No, heavy metal because music sounds good played fuckin' loud, heavy metal that splits the difference between stupid and stoopid and doesn't give a shit either way.
The difference, though, is that Dalle doesn't have Jett's unselfconscious penchant for pop (Jett, even before she achieved an icon's impunity from criticism, covered -- bless her - the Dave Clark Five on her debut). Coral Fang has more of a typical punk ambiguity -- all right, outright hostility -- towards pop happiness. Even the love songs here, including an ostensible stretch from "Beat Your Heart Out" to "Love is Paranoid" to "For Tonight You're Only Here to Know", are about giving in to a violent rush of blood to the head (either one) rather than long-term contentment or commitment.
Yet, whether about love or not, the songs are about spiritual violence couched in physical terms, about facing the void and teetering just this side from the brink. To give some idea, the liner notes, like the cover, are festooned with pictures of faceless, naked, sexual, dismembered female bodies and body parts that Jack the Ripper would have appreciated. Sure, lots of artists portray life, especially sex, as struggle -- Garbage, for instance -- but Dalle doesn't vamp it up, so her variations on the theme, if not any smarter, if not quite as sleekly catchy as Garbage's, do cut emotionally deeper.
For my money, this definitely isn't as good as a decent Joan Jett retrospective (Fit to be Tied and Flashback are both really good), but it is better than most of Jett's studio albums (I'd say less than early albums like I Love Rock n Roll or Bad Reputation but about even with Jett's late '80s comeback, Up Your Alley). The Distillers subtract a little of Joan Jett's poppy tunefulness and add (even) more aggressive vocals. If that sounds good to you, you'll at least like this album. Add bonus points if you like your hot rock grrls with a disembowlment and death fixation ("The Gallow is God", for noteworthy instance).
Dalle's label has her primed for a commercial breakthrough. She's ambitious enough to want it. And when the music the Distillers are pitching is this fierce (and when -- admit this matters -- Dalle is physically this attractive), she just might get it.