SHRIEK LIKE A CHILD
PESSIMISTS HAVE often gazed Into crystal balls and seen the future as a Blade Runner-style landscape of thwarted desires and technology gone wrong, as opposed to a Utopia where disease was eradicated and all the ‘isms’ were rendered meaningless.
However, an optimist coming of age in the early ’80s to the luxuriant agit-prop sounds of The Au Pairs, the Bush Tetras and Delta Five could’ve been forgiven for hoping that, by ’92, women in the music business would not be segregated by gender and judged according to how babellcious or how f***ed up their personas were. So why are Babes in Toyland still anchored to the debilitating quicksand of ‘Women In Rock’? Is time moving backwards?
It would be much more productive to perceive Kat, Lori and Maureen as the next generation of earth-shifting Minneapolis groups. After the damsel-in-distress fumblings of the deified Prince, the dipsomaniac ethos of The Replacements and the iron-claw-in-a-bed-of-roses howlings of Husker Dü, these Babes in Disneyland are ready to map out the heartaches on the main streets of the Twin Cities. And gender has doodlesquat to do with it.
Truth to tell, these quiet anarchists have evolved beyond all recognition since they tore the roof off the sucker in their ’88 London live debut. The wall-to-wall noise and strangulated screeching that was so scary and perversely enjoyable then has been tempered with sizeable nods towards punk-pop. So, instead of braying and ranting through songs, Kat now has a grasp of dynamics so calculated that each time she finally lets loose an AAAAAAAARGGGGHHH you don’t expect it, and the results feel like kicks to the solar-plexus from all directions.
The curious, the faithful and the thrill-seekers are all gathered here, but in reality they’re as subdued as Babes in Toyland themselves, as controlled and spring-coiled as snakes ready to make a strike. Sure, the usual dummy stage-divers are in effect, making fools of themselves, but it’s the gut-churning twaaaang of the music that keeps most of us spellbound. Kat has learned to speak in tongues, so she occasionally sounds like hers is an alien language. Maureen concentrates hard, locking the pounding bass in the groove that says: “If funk is liquid and low-slung, I’m rubbery and cement-like.”
Meanwhile, Lori is the resident jester, shaping jungle-drums not heard this way since Joy Division, although it must be said she sometimes throws a curve-ball by taking over (with her flexible vocal power, ‘Magic Flute’ is dangerously catchy and cleverly structured).
It’s too easy to see Babes in Toyland as post-feminist screamers trying to settle an age-old score. When you actually latch on to what’s being said, you realise the songs could apply to parties of either gender. All it takes is a leap of imagination away from mentally undressing the figures onstage to delving deep, being serious. Even if the sometimes shoddy mix relegates Kat’s guitar to a hum, episodes like the blood-curdling ‘Catatonic’ and the anti-abuse ‘Bruise Violet’ exercise their capability to leave you speechless. You can’t really ask for more.
© Dele Fadele, New Musical Express, 5 September 1992