Luscious Jackson whips up a taste of 'Honey'
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By Donna Freydkin
(CNN) -- It's almost the midnight hour, Paris time, and Luscious Jackson vocalist/bassist/guitarist Jill Cuniff sounds bushed. She's holed up in a hotel room in the city of lights, in the midst of a whirlwind European promotional tour to hype her band's sparkling pop aperitif of an album, the upcoming "Electric Honey."
She, drummer Kate Schellenbach and guitarist/keyboardist Gabrielle Glaser have played a few European club dates, finished a numbing number of interviews and answered the same endless questions over and over and over again. But if Cuniff is yearning for a little peace and quiet, she should know that it'll probably only go downhill from here.
Because if early critical predictions -- including raves from Spin and Esquire -- are any indication, Luscious Jackson's third major-label release is about to catapult the wildly hip, resourceful New York trio out of the shadow of the Beastie Boys, their higher profile Grand Royal label-mates.
The album's first single, "Ladyfingers," hit modern rock radio in April. It continues along the pop pathways first forged by the trio's last release, 1996's "Fever In Fever Out," and especially the breakout hit "Naked Eye."
"I wanted to continue in the vein of 'Naked Eye' from the last album -- that is, good songs with really good beats. Pop melodies, but we're trying to push music all the way," says Cuniff.
But as anyone who's cuddled in Luscious Jackson's enchantingly gauzy musical blanket of jazz, funk, punk, samples and gorgeous pop knows oh so well, the music is pretty much irresistible.
In eight years, Luscious Jackson has gone from serving as the opening act for the Breeders and Urge Overkill and playing on the Lollapalooza second stage to working with musical heavyweights Emmylou Harris and Blondie's Deborah Harry for the latest Luscious Jackson release.
But if anything, Luscious Jackson was always ahead of its time, presaging Beck and the Beastie Boys by dabbling in samples and funk beats. And from the start, this is a band that wowed critics, prompting Entertainment Weekly's Jeremy Helligar to describe 1994's "Natural Ingredients" as "impossible to peg -- think funk, punk, jazz, pop, disco, and hip-hop -- but is so nicely balanced that, unlike the Beasties, the group never seems indecisive or schizophrenic."
The trio has Spin now raving that "Electric Honey" is "the most seamless fusion yet of the band's influences."
"We've always gotten a lot of good press," acknowledges Cuniff. "But I just go with the flow. I'm happy with the success and go with the losses."
Yet, despite the critical flattery and in true alt-rock fashion, Cuniff denies that she and her bandmates have any grandiose career plans.
"We make the album, and whatever happens, happens. That's the only attitude to have. There's no way to have a grand scheme because it's all up to the public, anyway," says Cuniff.
"It's sort of out of our hands at this time. We make the best album we can and hope it does well."
The band, named after legendary 1960s Philadelphia 67ers basketball player Lucious "Luscious" Jackson, formed in 1991, and since then, has cranked out some of the most inventive, irresistible and pretty much unclassifiable music of the decade.
But music aside, Luscious Jackson has had something of a charmed life, largely due to the band's fortuitous connection to the Beastie Boys. In 1992, Cuniff and Glaser, the founding members of the band, hooked up with Schellenbach -- who started out as the drummer for the then-punk Beastie Boys -- and keyboardist Vivian Trimble, who quit the band last year. They ended up being the first act signed to the Beasties' label, Grand Royal, and played their first live show opening for the Beastie Boys and Cypress Hill in New York.
"We speak to them quite regularly," says Cuniff today of Luscious Jackson's relationship with the Beastie Boys.
Luscious Jackson's first album, "In Search of Manny" (named for a former boyfriend of Glaser's mother), grew out of an early 1991 demo that Cuniff and Glaser created with tip money. After serving as warm-up acts, Luscious Jackson graduated to its own fall 1994 headlining tour in support of "Natural Ingredients" and even a 1997 TV ad for Gap.
After going its own way on "Natural Ingredients," Luscious Jackson worked with Daniel Lanois (U2, Peter Gabriel) on the far slicker "Fever In Fever Out," which went gold. And on "Electric Honey," the trio teamed up with no fewer than four producers: "In Search of Manny" veteran Tony Mangurian, Mickey Petralia (the eels, Beck), Tony Visconti (David Bowie) and the duo 25 Ton.
But Cuniff says the cadre of producers was not a case of too many cooks in the kitchen.
"We had written a bunch of songs and we looked for producers who were right for the breadth of the material. That's when we decided to use four different co-producers. We took six months to finish it and we're happy with the final product," says Cuniff.
Taste of 'Honey'
While the more controlled "Electric Honey" lacks the giddiness and deliriously unfettered, earthy grooves of Luscious Jackson's two previous releases, especially "Natural Ingredients," it's still a stellar fusion of the trio's signature cocktail of funk, jazz, hip-hop, samples and pure pop.
If anything, "Electric Honey" finds the women doing pop 'til they drop, on such tunes as "Nervous Breakthrough," "Friends" (which features backing vocals from WNBA player Kym Hampton of the New York Liberty) and "Devotion."
Country vet Harris lends her backing vocals to "Ladyfingers," while Harry's throaty voice provides the backbone to "Fantastic Fabulous." Cuniff says the band's history with Harry dates back to an initial meeting at a Washington, D.C. musical festival, which led to Schellenbach drumming for Blondie at a 1998 gig.
"They're both incredible women. We've known Emmylou from the last album, and we've been fans of Deborah Harry's for years," says Cuniff. "She's come to a bunch of our shows. Kate played drums with Blondie recently and it all just came together. We recorded the song in an hour and a half. Professional, creative people can hammer things out and it just flows."
Next up for Luscious Jackson is a series of dates with summer womanfest Lilith Fair, followed by a tour with equally irreverent duo Cibo Matto.
Quitting while they're ahead: Summer '99 to close Lilith Fair
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