Photo: Courtesy of Cherry Red Records

L7’s Major Label Catalog Is Salvaged From Out-Of-Print Limbo With 3-CD Box

L7’s new box set Wargasm: ‘The Slash Years 1992-1997’ reminds us how essential the band’s classic material was—and still is.

Wargasm: The Slash Years 1992-1997
Cherry Red / HNE
26 March 2021

From a purely artistic perspective, it’s actually worked in L7‘s favor that they’ve been more or less written out of the grunge story. They haven’t literally been written out, mind you—author Mark Yarm’s scintillating 2011 oral history Everybody Loves Our Town places L7 right in the thick of the action—but they aren’t often mentioned in accounts of the period that focus endlessly on the same half-dozen bands. If L7 still elude the attention of media commentators (and listeners) who view music through a Behind the Music-tinted lens, though, the band hasn’t exactly been short-changed when it comes to mystique. Fan enthusiasm persisted long enough to fuel a highly-touted 2014 reunion that resulted in a new album in 2019. Yet, L7 have avoided the baggage that gets heaped on their contemporaries year after year. 

Apparently, not being anointed as poster children for a movement has its benefits. Decades after the fact, we’re left to enjoy L7’s catalog without the intrusion of clunky narratives. If certain blockbuster 1990s acts are the musical equivalent of tourist traps, L7’s work beckons listeners to get off the beaten path and avoid the stampede. There’s never been a bad time to revisit how essential L7’s classic material was (and still is), but since pretty much all of their albums have languished in out-of-print limbo, now is as good a time as any. The new three-CD set Wargasm bundles the titles the band released on Slash Records—1992’s Bricks Are Heavy, 1994’s Hungry for Stink, and 1997’s The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum—along with a handful of extras, including a re-interpretation of the infamous Guns N’ Roses track “Used to Love Her” turned on its head and re-worked as as “Used to Love Him”.

As veteran heavy music journalist Malcolm Dome puts it in liner notes, L7 combined punk sensibilities with grunge riffs, but not without some residue of the Sunset Strip-style hard rock that was popular in the band’s native LA when they formed in the mid-‘80s. Director Sarah Price’s must-see 2016 documentary Pretend We’re Dead explores the band’s art-rock/performance-art roots as well. Unsurprisingly, L7’s self-titled debut, released in 1988 by Epitaph Records and produced by label founder/Bad Religion guitarist/punk icon Brett Gurewitz, emphasized L7’s speedy punk side.

By contrast, the band’s sophomore effort Smell the Magic, released in 1990 (and reissued last year) by Sub Pop, verged on metal with a still-raw but much beefier sound courtesy of Jack Endino, Sub Pop’s go-to producer in the label’s early days. For Bricks Are Heavy, the band’s third album and first in the major label system, L7 were paired with Butch Vig the moment before Vig’s reputation transitioned from independent up-and-comer to smash hitmaker thanks to Nirvana’s Nevermind. That album hit stores while L7 were in Madison, Wisconsin recording with Vig.

While frontwoman/rhythm guitarist Donita Sparks speaks highly of Vig’s instincts for songcraft in the new liners, and while Bricks Are Heavy gave the band its biggest splash with the anthemic single “Pretend We’re Dead”, Vig also added an element of gloss that muzzled the band’s intensity somewhat. Just compare the studio version of “Pretend We’re Dead” with the band’s rowdy performance of the same song on Late Night with David Letterman that same year (with musical director Paul Shaffer and house-band members Will Lee, Sid McGinnis and Anton Fig playing along and looking like they were having a blast). Slash, an LA-based imprint with a pedigree that included local punk legends like X, Fear, and The Germs, still operated much like an independent label in spirit. In several respects, the members of L7 felt like it was the perfect platform for a band of their creative temperament. 

Indeed, the radio-friendly, arena-catering sound of Bricks Are Heavy, which takes up Wargasm’s first disc, couldn’t have been contrived to line up with the zeitgeist because no one could have seen it coming at that point. And songs like “Diet Pill” and “Wargasm” (which samples Yoko Ono screaming on the Plastic Ono Band’s Live Peace in Toronto 1969) certainly pack a punch. Additionally, those songs, along with several others on Bricks Are Heavy, epitomize L7’s ability to pack some wit along with that punch. Throughout the band’s career, Sparks tended to favor direct imagery splashed with a sense of humor that many of her socially conscious peers lacked. The result was a fizzy cocktail of biting social commentary that made you feel giggly as it got you thinking.

While the harrowing depiction of a woman’s ennui on “Diet Pill” leaves you with an unsettling lack of clarity on what the song’s protagonist might have just done to her two twins and (presumably) her husband, “Wargasm” delivers its social critique about the jingoistic fetishizing of warfare and manufacturing of consent via wordplay that would tickle Beavis and Butt-head. (“Wargasm, wargasm, one, two, three / Tie a yellow ribbon ’round the amputee / Masturbate, watch it on TV / Crocodile tears for the refugee.”) Sparks’ deadpanning wouldn’t have landed with nearly as much moxie if not for the personal and musical chemistry she shared with lead guitarist/second lead vocalist Suzi Gardner, bassist/third lead vocalist Jennifer Finch, and drummer Dee Plakas.

As a group, L7 carried themselves with a peculiar combination of crudeness, charm, and intellect. If Beavis and Butt-head had been real people, you could picture the band doing whippets with them and then going on to meet with a member of Congress right after—without skipping a beat or even changing their demeanor all that much. (This was, after all, the group that founded Rock For Choice and later went on to hire two planes to fly banners trolling both the Lilith Fair and Warped Tour on the same day.) Often, we think of “personality” as something that detracts from music’s integrity, something that bands need to play up because their musical ideas lack substance. In L7’s case, not only did they have personality in spades, but the personality was inseparable from their musical talent. And their collective eccentricity gave their music depth while also making it approachable and utterly lacking in pretense. 

There’s probably no other band in history that’s released a 13-minute mock radio interview that we’d consider listenable—much-less essential. But the most revealing hidden gem in this set comes in with “Interview”, originally released as a UK/Australia-only b-side to “Andres”, the leadoff single from the Bricks Are Heavy follow-up Hungry for Stink. An extended sketch-comedy bit, “Interview” (which collectors will know as “Live Interview”), nevertheless reveals something about the tangle of feelings the band must have harbored about their newfound (if modest) celebrity. “With your new album called Hungry for Stink, you don’t [actually] stink, do you?” asks a “caller” playing the role of a wealthy suburban mom whose daughter loves the band. “I mean,” the mom continues, chuckling nervously, “you look like you might.” 

To whatever degree L7 do get their fair share of credit for their accomplishments, it can’t be stated enough how they brought a breath of fresh intelligence to both punk and metal. That remained true even when Sparks dialed down the humor considerably on Hungry for Stink, which takes up this set’s second disc. Released right in the throes of grunge/alternative’s grip on the masses, Hungry for Stink remains a compelling snapshot of a mental health crisis in the making. Up until this point, Sparks had always maintained a sense of storyteller’s distance from her subjects, perhaps even glamorizing self-destruction somewhat. This time, she chose to get personal. Where other artistic figures from the time took us into the harrowing world of addiction and psychological deterioration—sometimes dying in the process—Sparks sounds just as convincing yet somehow anchored, even uplifted, by the pluck and fury of the music. 

On “Baggage”, she sings, “Can’t keep it together / losing my grip / yeah, time to abandon ship” over a sludgy guitar riff. And when she scrapes her throat screaming the word “baggage” for the song’s chorus, it’s obvious that she’s not just screaming as a punk affectation, her snark and snarl replaced by what sounds like authentic torment. On “Can I Run”, Sparks itemizes her intrusive thoughts about being physically attacked in a variety of gruesome ways: “Switched to paranoid from having fun / Will he use his hands, knife or a gun? / Knuckles are white wrapped around my mace / comes from living in a terrorist state.” On “Questioning My Sanity”—a tanklike, heavy-grooving chug that would have fit right at home on any album by L7’s confrères in the likeminded Seattle band Tad—Sparks sings, “I haven’t changed my clothes in weeks / I’m wallowing in my own stink / My ass is sore from lying in bed / Am I alive or am I dead? / I’m questioning my sanity. 

With producer Garth Richardson (Rage Against the Machine, Melvins) at the helm, Hungry for Stink marked the first time that all the dimensions of L7’s sound—punk, grunge, hard rock, metal—were properly captured in equal balance with one another. It is also arguably the only studio offering from the band that rivals the mangy ferocity of its live show during its heyday. And though it’s easy to write off a song like “She Has Eyes” as a behind-the-curve ripoff of Nirvana’s “About a Girl”, the album overall leaves no question about L7’s mark on the 1990s and on music in general.

In contrast to Vig’s commercial touch, Richardson’s edgier, more organic style highlights how L7 were capable of being just as catchy as “Pretend We’re Dead” while getting as abrasive as anything on Smell the Magic. And there are moments where the guitar fuzz is so gloriously thick it feels like you’re swimming in amplifier distortion. Meanwhile, the Gardner-sung “Stuck Here Again”, a song that stands out for its reflective ambience, tremoloing guitar, and shades of ‘60s surf, rock and roll, and psychedelia, gives a glimpse of the expansion the band would try its next time out.

Though the album, as Sparks quipped in an interview from that time, “didn’t broaden our fanbase one iota” (as drummer Dee Plakas cackled out loud in response), Hungry for Stink is long overdue for re-evaluation as a classic. Of course, the pop landscape changed dramatically between 1994 and 1997, so it’s no surprise that L7 ventured into classic rock, pop, electronic, and lo-fi expressions with The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum. It’s an album notable (among other things) for Finch’s abrupt departure from the band while it was being made. There’s an argument to be made for every member of L7’s classic lineup as a “secret weapon” who was integral to the whole. Gardner’s fretboard heroics and one-of-kind wah-wah flair, for example, brought some shredder cred to the table. And while Sparks was unmatched in her ability to go from a sneer to a howl to her signature warbling vibrato (something like a high-speed yodel), Gardner and Finch’s vocals textured the songs with distinct nuances of character.

None of L7’s front line were one-dimensional screamers, but when they sang together as a group, it not only made the music more full it also charged it with a palpable sense of camaraderie. You could say the same for how all four members of L7’s classic lineup approached their instruments as well. When you watch footage of their 1993 appearance at the Hollywood Rock festival in Rio de Janeiro (a bill that also featured Nirvana, Alice In Chains, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers), a sea of bodies bounces in unison when L7 take command of the stage with the churning riff of their song “Deathwish”. In their prime, the band could achieve the same monumental roar in small venues, and the way all four members gnashed in complete unison was one of L7’s primary attributes.

Finch and Sparks had a magnetism that positively burns off the stage, even with the poor video quality. Meanwhile, the relatively reserved Gardner and Plakas counter-balanced their bandmates’ outward volatility with something like a laid-back quality. If L7 had wanted to, they could have played up the contrasts between members the way Cheap Trick did on its classic album covers in the ‘70s. But those contrasts only highlighted the all-for-one, musketeers vibe that set L7 apart. For as much as rock bands like to give off a gang-like aura, few bands achieve the level of togetherness that we hear in L7’s body of work. As such, The Beauty Process documents both a band that’s just suffered the loss of a vital component and a scrappy diehard unit doing an admirable job of adapting and refusing to be killed by shifting trends.

In the Pretend We’re Dead film, Sparks refers to The Beauty Process as the “record we all got our shit together on”. Its inclusion side-by-side with the two records that precede it is vital to getting the full picture of the band’s journey. Just to put things in perspective, none of the band’s videos from its time on Slash have been posted to YouTube in an official capacity. Thankfully, the band’s entire catalog is up on Spotify. Still, with all three of the Slash albums no longer widely available otherwise, any music fan with a shred of interest in ‘90s guitar rock who wants to own this music in physical form should consider Wargasm an essential purchase.

RATING 8 / 10