If you’re a ’90s nostalgist, now is an excellent time to be a music fan. The last few years have brought a steady influx of legendary bands from that decade reuniting after years of inactivity. The list seems to increase on a monthly basis: Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., Swervedriver, Polvo, My Bloody Valentine, et cetera. With the release of Inherit, their first new album in 11 years, you can now add Free Kitten to that list.
To anyone who loves the sound of guitar feedback, Free Kitten is the kind of band that the word “supergroup” was invented to describe. Singers/guitarists Kim Gordon and Julia Cafritz gained notoriety through their work with, respectively, Sonic Youth and Pussy Galore. Drummer Yoshimi is best known as a member of the Boredoms. However, anyone who bought a Free Kitten album in the mid-’90s expecting a synergistic fusion of those three bands was bound to be disappointed. The band spent just as much time parodying hip-hop, dabbling with electronics and doing Minutemen and Serge Gainsbourg covers as they did playing noisy rock songs. Their oeuvre felt like a clearinghouse for all of the bad ideas and inside jokes that its members couldn’t work into their main bands. For better or worse, Free Kitten was also the kind of band that the word “side project” was invented to describe. They didn’t exactly leave a large, fervent fan base pining for an end to their hiatus.
Fortunately, Inherit is good enough to make me wonder if they should have. On this album, Free Kitten has slightly streamlined its sound. The band still sounds different depending on who’s at the microphone – the Gordon-fronted songs are dreamy, whereas the Cafritz-fronted songs are screamy – but there are no awkward genre experiments or poorly chosen covers.
When Gordon drapes her ethereal Sprechstimme atop the band’s loose, pointillist interplay, the music often resembles Sonic Youth’s more pastoral moments. On opening track “Erected Girl,” every element of the song seems deliberately tentative. One guitarist gingerly strums a simple three-chord riff while the other plucks lazy, arrhythmic arpeggios. Yoshimi, meanwhile, steadfastly refuses to stay in the pocket, opting instead to stop, start and displace beats every few seconds. Gordon’s voice switches between singing and speaking. Even the lyrics find her unable to decide whether to “rise up” or “lay down”. The song doesn’t resolve until its last two minutes, when the band starts leaning on a single chord together. The transition makes me feel like I’m snapping out of a lucid dream every time I hear it. “Billboard” plays a similar trick on the listener. It begins with Gordon and Cafritz coaxing heavy drones from their guitars, until an actual chord progression reveals itself halfway through the song. “Monster Eye” employs this trick in reverse. The Krautrock jam of its first half slowly disintegrates into a blizzard of white noise and spoken vocals during its second half.
Unfortunately, Free Kitten’s ambivalence toward rocking – not even the occasional guest appearance from Dinosaur Jr. guitarrorist J. Mascis can convince them to do it – becomes a liability when Cafritz takes the microphone. Songs like “Help Me” and “Bananas”, in which she wails like a claustrophobic trapped in an elevator, demand tighter, more aggressive playing than the band supplies. When she calms down a bit, as she does on the unrequited love lament “Seasick”, her vocals complement the music more effectively. When she gets feral, though, the band sounds declawed.
Despite that flaw, Inherit is a welcome return from a band that most of us probably didn’t even realize we missed. I still wouldn’t recommend this album to anyone who isn’t already a fan of the members’ main bands. However, I also hope that I won’t have to wait another 11 years for Free Kitten to release another album of similar or greater quality.