In the space between its Native Tongues-initiated Daisy Age and the creeping dread of the Wu-Tang era lie hip hop's endlessly fertile mid-period, a time when Diamond D's Digging In The Crates ethos, The Low End Theory and the rolling g-funk of Dr. Dre's The Chronic were the order of the day, taking the sound to dizzying new heights that would set the tone for the remainder of the decade. The music was often — though not always — playful, informed by a gleeful, reckless sampladelia (on one hand) and a fusion of live instrumentation and machine rhythms (on the other), coming on like a wholesale realization of everything the music had been moving toward since Kool Herc first started mashing up breakbeats down in The Bronx way back in the early 1970s.
It's interesting to reflect that this description also fits the inscrutable musical appeal of Luscious Jackson — a quartet of hip New Yorkers that emerged around the same time — remarkably well. Forming around the nucleus of bassist Jill Cunniff and Gabby Glaser on guitar, the duo recorded their earliest demos with tip money before drafting in Vivian Trimble on keyboards (all three traded vocal duties). The group's sound at this point was a loose-limbed amalgam of murky sampladelic collage and live instrumentation, a dusted sonic stew that seem to contain the ghosts of ESG and The Slits lurking in the shadows even as it paralleled the sonics of contemporary hip hop.
Appropriately enough, their debut live showing was an opening set for the Beastie Boys and Cypress Hill, which led to the Beasties approaching the band to become the first act signed to their recently launched Grand Royal imprint. Coming in the wake of the Beasties' reinvention as worldly crate-digging bricoleurs under the tutelage of the immortal Dust Brothers during the sessions for their epochal sophomore set Paul's Boutique, the Grand Royal aesthetic captured an offbeat, kaleidoscopic vision of vintage Superfly cool. Naturally, these ladies would fit right in.
The group's debut EP (or was it a mini-album?) In Search Of Manny emerged in 1992, around the time of the Beasties Check Your Head, and both records are certainly of a piece. In fact, Beasties drummer Kate Schellenbach joined the group during these sessions, rounding out what would become the classic Luscious Jackson line up. Right from the beginning, their sound was a fully-formed collision of multi-layered sonic collage and deft live playing. From the rough rolling beats and casual rap of the opener Let Yourself Get Down, it becomes immediately clear that Luscious Jackson are the spiritual descendants of fellow New Yorkers ESG.
Indeed, the group seem to almost subconsciously offer up a brilliant update the whole 99 Records aesthetic for the hip hop nineties. The instrumental Bam-Bam would certainly sound comfortable in the company of Liquid Liquid and the Bush Tetras, while the causal rap/breakbeat pile up Daughters Of The Kaos and Life Of Leisure's clash of spectral harmony over moody bassline parallel similar endeavors on Come Away With ESG. The whole thing has a wonderfully homespun flavor, almost as if it were mastered directly from cassette, with all its edges beveled and blurred in a gently psychedelic haze.
This murky sound gets brought into sharp focus on the group's debut album, Natural Ingredients. The crisp, homespun sound here matching the day-glo graffiti of its sleeve art perfectly, this seems to make explicit connections with the days when Afrika Bambaataa held court at The Roxy. From a standpoint of density and studio finesse, this is leaps and bounds beyond Manny, although further advancements were yet to come. If I had any one complaint, it's that the sound here is almost too crisp, and the grooves just that little bit too locked down, without the unpredictable drift of their earliest recordings.
Citysong's monotone rap calls to mind Debbie Harry's similar endeavors on Blondie's Rapture, while the singing throughout hits with a greater confidence than ever before, occasionally even recalling Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson's soaring harmonies in The B-52's. The lo-fi punk disco of Here hits just right, from its cheaply trilling synths to the laser FX, while Rock Freak and LP Retreat prefigure the dusted sound of epochal late-nineties confections like Sublime's Doin' Time, Beck's Where It's At and Everlast's Ends. The sinewy, low-slung grooves throughout are quite splendid, particularly in tunes like Find Your Mind and Energy Sucker, with the crew beating nearly all of Madchester at their own game.
Tucked away between the band's first and second LP is this charming little record, credited to the Kostars, which finds Jill Cunniff and Vivian Trimble recording off-the-cuff ditties in the downtime on tour between Luscious Jackson records. There's a good deal more room to breathe here, with skeletal guitar figures and sparse rhythms underpinning the duo's loose, unvarnished harmonies, while Vivian Trimble's keyboards provide all manner of tonal flourish just beneath the surface. Produced by Josephine Wiggs of The Breeders, the record's full of all sorts of little surprises throughout its brief half-hour running time. Dean and Gene of indie rock pranksters Ween even make a cameo on the wistful Don't Know Why!
On one hand, it's very much its own thing, coming off almost like an inspired set of demos sketched down on tape after hours in the group's rehearsal space. Shot through with canyon folk and even country overtones, with shades even of jazz and Brazilian music thrown in for good measure, there's occasionally even glimpses of something like a particularly strung out Stereolab. And yet, with the presence of Kate Schellenbach behind the kit and Gabby Glaser's appearance on the record's lone single Hey Cowboy, it plays like an honorary Luscious Jackson record. Of course, it helps that Klassics With A K also seems to lay the foundation for the sensational record to follow a mere six months later...
For me, it all comes together on Fever In Fever Out. The group's second full-length also turned out to be their greatest brush with the big time, with Naked Eye becoming something of a sensation in that fertile mid-nineties territory where alternative radio and the dancefloor intersect. With Daniel Lanois coming into the fold as producer, there's a greater focus on pure ATMOSPHERE than ever before. The same loose-fitting, spacious sound that he brought to records like U2's The Unforgettable Fire and Peter Gabriel's Us is in evidence throughout, perhaps looser even, conjuring up a yet more intimate ambience than ever before. Imagine the spaced-out country western shapes of Brian Eno's ambient classic Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks and Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball (two more Lanois productions) swapped out for a downbeat jazz sensibility, and you wouldn't be too far off.
All of which gives the sound some room to breathe, stretching out into a moody, dimly lit playground where Luscious Jackson can do what they do best... and nowhere do they lay it all down as wickedly as they do here. For once, I don't want to get into track-by-track specifics — since this will surely be a Tile of the Month at some point in the future — but allow me to paint a picture for you. Fever In Fever Out blends the loose-limbed, soft focus dusted grooves of In Search Of Manny with Natural Ingredients' ever-shifting harmonies and the Kostars' rough-hewn, off-the-cuff brilliance in a heady stew of gently psychedelic moonlit blues. Homespun and sparkling in the night, the group's day-glo neon sound gets a noirish, atmospheric twist, every texture swathed in a gauzy, dreamlike haze and their live hip hop beats jazzed-out to the edge of abstraction.
My (possibly controversial) thesis is that Vivian Trimble was the group's secret weapon. Her emergence as a 50/50 collaborator with Jill Cunniff on Klassics With A K coincides with the subsequent atmospheric explosion in the group's sound, while her keyboards bathe everything here in a warm, neon-lit glow. In fact, they define the sound of the record's second side, with the recurring analogue whine of spectral g-funk synths spiraling off into the ether with stunning regularity. Indeed, there's a definite dream pop logic at play throughout, and the surprise appearance of Emmylou Harris' backing vocals only serves to underline the whole surreal trip.
The whole thing's set off by Naked Eye, which is one song I will go into detail about here, since it came out as a single in its own right. Like I said before, it made a serious splash, comparable in some ways to the way the Sneaker Pimps' 6 Underground also did. Indeed, both tunes seemed to be everywhere at the time, peppering the radio waves just as Timbaland was on the ascendant. Similarly, Naked Eye remains one of the great pop artifacts of the era, its half-rapped verse and soaring chorus harmonies riding rolling breakbeats driven from the backseat by Jill Cunniff's haunting basslines. It's joined here by a handful of subtly-executed remixes and two non-LP b-sides (Banana's Box and Foster's Lover) that sneak in yet more of Fever's dusted atmospheric magic.
Which gets unfortunately sidelined somewhat on the group's follow-up LP, which finds the group soldiering on in the wake of Vivian Trimble's departure. Three years have passed, and with the onslaught of turn-of-the-century mercenary careerist pop in full swing, one imagines that the group were going for the jugular here. The sound is locked onto an uptempo pulse, but this time its the siren song of clubland that's a-calling. There's more electronics than ever here, with post-rave sequences rolling through seemingly every stone cold groove, but it's all right upfront by this point rather than lurking atmospheric in the shadows. At the time, I immediately missed the soft focus psychedelia of Fever, but there's still plenty here to celebrate. Emmylou Harris even returns for some more backing vocal action, on both Ladyfingers (the record's single) and Country's A Callin', with the latter offering a welcome echo of the Kostars record.
Conversely, there's a prescient shift toward new wave sonics throughout, which would return with a vengeance a few years later in the new new wave era when the likes of Interpol, Playgroup and The Rapture keyed into a certain eighties-inspired zeitgeist. Debbie Harry herself even makes a cameo appearance on Fantastic Fabulous, reprising her original girl-group-gone-punk turn in Blondie's X Offender. Bringing it all back home, Electric Honey seemed to make literal the links between Luscious Jackson and original new wavers like Bananarama, the Bangles and Missing Persons. However, the record didn't manage to make waves to the degree that its predecessor had, and the group disbanded a year later.
If there's a happy ending in all this, you'll find it here. Emerging at the dawn of the new century, Dusty Trails was a 50/50 collaboration between Vivian Trimble and Josephine Wiggs, putting the dark horse of Luscious Jackson back in the studio with the woman who worked the boards for the Kostars record. The (soft) focus here is without a doubt on atmosphere once again, and songs like Caught In A Dream and St-Tropez ply an ethereal country-tinged dream pop, coming on like a slightly more polished sequel to Klassics With A K. Emmylou Harris returns one last time on the liquid country ballad Order Coffee.
Proving that this lot were often at their best when they played it fast and loose, Dusty Trails serves as the perfect swan song to the brilliant Gaussian mirages conjured up by the gang over the winding course of the decade, at times eschewing beats altogether for pure atmospheric bliss. From the dusted grooves of the debut In Search Of Manny to the Kostars' brilliant sketches on Klassics With A K and their masterpiece Fever In Fever Out, there's a whole world in there, full of sparkling hip hop blues waiting to be (re)discovered... a private kingdom dreamed up by these stardust queens of the moonlight groove.