Luscious Jackson: Better Than You Remember

lj.jpgSo Capitol Records can afford to release this album, but they can't afford to spend more than five minutes on its graphic design? Seriously, WTF

Here's something I can never quite figure out: who decides which bands get to release greatest hits albums? Gang Starr has a new greatest hits album even though they already released a double-disc greatest hits album years ago and it's one of only two Gang Starr albums that went gold. N.W.A also has a new greatest hits album, and they only released two albums and an EP. I'd love to know who's responsible for those The Essential Whoever albums that I always see clogging up discount bins; when people put those things together, do they know they're going straight to the discount bins, or do they just have no idea? Considering the music industry's long history of releasing inexplicable and wildly inessential compilations like those, it maybe shouldn't come as a massive surprise that someone at Capitol Records thought it would be a good idea to unleash a Luscious Jackson greatest hits album on the world, but the whole thing is still pretty mystifying. Luscious Jackson released three albums, none of which sold particularly well as far as I know. They had exactly one hit ("Naked Eye," #36, March 1997). They've been broken up for seven years, and none of the band's members has done anything particularly notable since then. If there's some segment of the population that absolutely demanded a commercial reissue of the Thievery Corporation remix of "Nervous Breakthrough," I haven't heard anything about it. As surprised as I was when the greatest-hits CD showed up on my desk, though, I was even more shocked when I actually got around to listening to it. Maybe someone at Capitol remembered something I'd completely forgotten: Luscious Jackson were really fucking great.

Luscious Jackson's particular innovation was to take bits and pieces of disco and funk and rap and house collapse all those jagged corners into a warm, flat, soothing strain of mood-music, not all that tonally distant from dream-pop or bossa nova. The drum-ripples and flute-flutters that drive "Strongman," for instance, could've come from some forgotten shelf in DJ Premier's record library, but even a producer as calm and restrained as Premier or Pete Rock wouldn't have muted the beat quite as sharply as Luscious Jackson did, burying it deep in the track and pushing Jill Cunniff's thick, expressionless singsong to the forefront. The chiffon synths and Nile Rodgers guitars and restless drums on "Here" are straight-up disco, but all that stuff has to come through layers of distance. "Naked Eye" buries its frisky beat even deeper, letting it prop up some gorgeously layered harmonies and sleepy half-rapping. The four women in Luscious Jackson had spent years as New York club kids, and together they projected the sense that they'd absorbed and completely internalized all those beats, that all that rhythm-driven party music had become a sort of musical comfort-food so deeply engrained them that they couldn't make quiet, graceful music without piling a couple of layers of overdriven congas somewhere in the mix. They mostly didn't sing about clubbing; they sang about female solidarity and romantic paranoia and, like, how awesome their toes were, but all that stuff came reflected through the lens of those beats. Whenever they tried to excise that rhythmic sensibility, as on the weirdly country-influenced "Why Do I Lie?," they were suddenly totally out of their element, so that's probably why they hardly ever left their comfort zone.

Luscious Jackson was a New York band in ways that I didn't quite recognize until I moved here. This is a city where people and noises are all piled on top of each other, where you have to get used to barking dogs and screaming car-alarms and loud upstairs parties if you want to get any sleep at night. Luscious Jackson wrote mellow, mannered songs, but all that background noise came through because all that background noise had completely informed their sense of calm. The band spent its entire existence in the shadow of the Beastie Boys; LJ's Kate Schellenbach was the Beasties' original drummer, and all three LJ albums came out on Grand Royal, the Beasties' label. But Luscious Jackson's music has aged a lot better than anything the Beasties or fellow downtown cronies like Cibo Matto did during the 90s. The Beasties spent the 90s reveling in a newfound eclecticism; they pulled from the same well of influence as LJ, but they made more of a point of smashing us all over the head with their omnivorous appetites. For LJ, that sense of exploration was totally second-nature; they made it all sound easy. The Luscious Jackson greatest hits album is coming out only a month or two after the group announced that it would be reuniting in 2007 to record a children's album. When I first read about the reunion, I just thought it was weird. All of a sudden, I can't wait. So maybe some faceless Capitol Records desk-jockey was trying to tell me something. I'd like to think so, anyway.

Voice review: Sara Sherr on Luscious Jackson's Electric Honey

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