The peasant-skirted, tie-dyed vibe of Lilith Fair, the all-female tour that recently came to Starwood, seems a far cry from the very figure after which the fest was named. According to Jewish legend, Lilith was Adam’s first wife; after refusing to submit to her husband, she fled into the desert, where she emerged as a demon of the night, a symbol of chaos and rebellion. Much as the event was dubbed a female Lollapalooza, not a single performer on the bill embodied Lilith’s willful, combative spirit.
Indeed, if any band deserves to call its tour a “Lilith Fair,” it’s the Geraldine Fibbers, a group fronted by the visceral, aggressive Carla Bozulich. “I’d rather die than let you rule my life,” she sings on Butch, the Fibbers’ new album. Then, with palpable scorn, she screams, “Shoulda killed me when you had the chance.” Bozulich’s invective may be a bit arch, but that’s precisely what makes her one of rock’s most arresting provocateurs: Like Prince, Patti Smith, and Polly Harvey, she makes defiance swing.
Bozulich conceived the Los Angeles-based Fibbers while still a member of the industrial dance trio Ethyl Meatplow. Originally an outlet for her passion for honky-tonk music, the group gradually began to shed its country leanings. Except for a few string-band accents and a couple of surreal Appalachian-style ballads, the Fibbers’ 1995 debut, Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home, bears scant resemblance to the hillbilly music of any era. It is, nevertheless, an id-driven tour de force, full of anarchic noise and surging melodies that invoke the music of LA punk band X.
Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home is the perfect vehicle for Bozulich’s raging originals, many of which are aimed at the people and institutions that have tried to control her. Butch is even more confrontational, proving that Bozulichonce a denizen of the LA demimondestill has some spleen to vent. “I stand here naked at attention,” she spews. “Is this my only skill?” Elsewhere, she vows, “I’ll be alone forever/You will never get my heart,” words perhaps born of the shattered innocence the singer lays bare in “Toy Box” and “Arrow to My Drunken Eye.”
Ranging from bedroom growl to ravaged howl, Bozulich’s vocals convey the wild heart of the Geraldine Fibbers. And they’re utterly devastating live, as evidenced by her caterwauling on “Lilybelle” and “Get Thee Gone” at the band’s recent Exit/In show. Her songwriting is equally potent, by turns artful and indulgent, yet ever attuned to the commingling of music and language. “A ball of light comes down to bite me on the ass, the legs, the breasts. I’m falling from my nest, my earth, my pride, are laughing from inside,” she sings on “California Tuffy,” her words shaking loose the song’s cascading rhythms. “In tortoise, in shell, in hell, you’ll find me on my back, I crack, once more. Yes I am just a tart, a heart on stilts.” More than just clever wordplay, Bozulich’s lyrics gush forth as freely as her unfettered emotions.
Musically, Butch is both artier and more dissonant than the Fibbers’ debut. Much of this can be ascribed to the addition of guitarist Nels Cline, a veteran of New York City’s progressive jazz and rock scenes. (Tendonitis forced original guitarist Daniel Keenan to leave the band last year.) Known for assaulting his guitar strings with egg beaters and other found objects, as he did during the Fibbers’ Exit/In set, Cline’s skronky improvisation adds an appropriately psychotic air to the band’s music. Newcomer Layna Marika P, replacing violinist Jessy Greene, only heightens this tension with her infernal sawing.
On record, the Fibbers’ newfound experimentalism occasionally saps the strength from their glorious Sturm und Drang, most notably on the esoteric, almost quaint instrumentation of “Claudine” and on the title track. As part of their live show, however, “Butch” sounded soulful and more immediate. Indeed, from the art-damaged blues of “Toy Box” and the force-beat funk of “I Killed the Cuckoo” to the elegiac grandeur of “Trashman in Furs,” the Fibbers’ new album is as expansive and primal as good rock ’n’ roll gets. The band’s titanic cover of Can’s 1969 anthem “You Doo Right” could even make believers out of the hidebound programmers at modern-rock radio.
Butch betrays the Fibbers’ once dominant country proclivities only twiceon the Western shuffle of “Folks Like Me” and on the waltzing “Pet Angel,” yet another of the quintet’s twisted adaptations of the mountain ballad tradition. At the Exit/In last week, the group also performed Willie Nelson’s “Hands on the Wheel,” the only country cover that remains from a time when the Fibbers’ live set routinely included Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” George Jones’ “The Grand Tour,” and Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”
“Pet Angel” begins harmlessly enough, but its deliberately clichéd imagerya full moon, strolling lovers, a tolling church bellleaves listeners unprepared for the moment when the song’s female protagonist kills her brutish male companion. On one level, the song is a woozy, over-the-top mess. But as a cautionary tale for those trying, as Bozulich sings, “to get inside our head or in our bed,” it fairly captures her indomitable essence. At such moments, one realizes, she truly is a modern-day Lilith.
Walton Goggins for Fox. Claire Danes, if you squint, for Barry.
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