With one killer track and their revenge served luke-warm, this new EP is a brief and mildly successful comeback for these pioneering women of post-punk dub.
Normally, I listen to CDs five to 10 times before I begin writing about them. With the new release by the Slits, their first in a quarter century, I gave it but one pre-writing spin. Why? Because it's a three-song EP that lasts a mere 10:35. I figured that if I played it on repeat while I typed, I would hear it perhaps a dozen times more before concluding this write-up. After documenting all the business-end data necessary for creating a PopMatters review (artist name, web addresses, release dates, etc.), I'm already halfway through my third play. Okay, maybe 12 repetitions was a conservative estimate.
"Who are the Slits, and why should I care?" Fair question. This British band was among the absolutely essential pioneering all-female punk groups, easily ranking in influence with the Raincoats and the Au Pairs. In 1976, when they began, singer Ari Up was 14 years of age. Joining forces with drummer Palmolive, bassist Tessa Pollitt, and guitarist Viv Albertine, the Slits line-up was soon formed. The girls possessed precious little musical knowledge at this point, but, by the following year, they were sharing the stage with none other than the Clash. This pairing was appropriate (and perhaps influential), for the two groups shared a love of reggae music, and the Slits incorporated heavy doses of dubby Jamaican beats and lean, wiry guitar rhythms into their punk tunes.
In 1979, the group unleashed its wildly wonderful debut, Cut. It is unlike any other punk or post-punk album of the time. Sophisticated in its assimilation of sounds, it was also replete with rickety outsider charm. The record was equal parts Lee "Scratch" Perry, PIL, and the Shaggs. Remarkably, it was actually quite catchy, while still maintaining a healthy distance from the accessibility of other sounds from the scene, like the pop-punk of the Buzzcocks and the Undertones, or the roots-rock reggae of their old pals, the Clash. The ladies posed as bare-chested, grass-skirted tropical warrior women for the album cover, perfectly capturing the disc's playful sense of danger, and the fact that the Slits were a musical island unto themselves.
After releasing just one more full-length, 1981's Return of the Giant Slits, the group disbanded. Sadly, this album is in print only as a Japanese import. Although not as commanding as the girls' debut, it found them diving deeper into their ethnomusicological leanings, incorporating more world elements into their material.
But it is Cut that established the legacy of the Slits, whose music helped spawn the riot grrrl generation of all-female punk-inspired bands of the 1990s. In the late-'70s, women in rock were almost exclusively relegated to vocal duties. Would we have a Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls today were it not for the Slits? Okay, yeah, probably. I mean, the Go-Go's were pretty darn popular. But, still, the Slits kicked it all off and kicked ass along the way.
How important, then, is their 21st century reunion and this new EP? Not terribly. The band already recorded their one great album and laid the foundation for future generations of chicks who wanna rock. Nonetheless, my seventh listen to Revenge of the Killer Slits reveals a surprisingly wide range of musical styles. Opener "Slits Tradition" is the one crucial track here. Pollitt's dark and ominous bass line wobbles atop a hip-hop beat (courtesy of Paul Cook, ex-Sex Pistols), as Ari Up delivers this sing-songy rap: "It's a Slits tradition / With a vision for a mission / So just do it different". Door-buzzer electronics and vocalized raptor trills add more creepiness and cool. The feminist lyrics are, honestly, a bit obvious and dumb. But, if you don't pay close attention to the words, the track still sounds freaking awesome. Next is "Number One Enemy", a straight-up punk song heavily reminiscent of Cook's legendary old band. I can't discern exactly who is the target of the venom in this track, but I get the feeling the Slits are pretty darn pissed-off. "You wanna swallow me / But you might get indigestion", make for a couple of funny lines, but they don't raise the level of the song above the quality of millions of similar punk rock toss-offs. The third and final track, "Kill Them with Love", sets the disc back on track again. It is a more organic indie-rock take on Tricky-esque trip-hop. Jerky break beats on the snare drum are paired with a low, dubby, skeletal-funk bass part. Vocally, they do a pretty amazing job of stretching out the lyrics contained within the song's title. It took me, oh, I think it's eight or nine listens now to realize that there are very few other words on this track.
Other than the punk 101 guitar stabs on "Number One Enemy", I'm not sure what exactly Marco Polini (Adam & the Ants, Siouxsie and the Banshees) contributes here. Weird noises, perhaps. Anyway, it's an interesting line-up, but one which apparently won't be sticking together. Their fall tour band will see the introduction of three new Slits chicks, listed on the official website as Adele, Anna, and No.
So, for a quick tally, this EP yields one great song, one that is totally unnecessary, and a third that is a little slight, but still pretty good. Not bad, but not spectacular, either. It feels like Ari and Tessa were mostly just getting reacquainted and having fun throwing together some tracks with old friends. Whether or not the product of this endeavor is of value to the average listener is debatable. Aside from "Slits Tradition", Revenge of the Killer Slits is entirely disposable. But it was fun while it lasted, all 11 (10? 12? however many) times.