Bricks Are Heavy (30th Anniversary reissue) LP
(Licorice Pizza Records)
Looking back on it now, it’s pretty pitiful how unprepared the music industry was for L7. When the band first appeared in 1988 with their debut album, it’s easy enough to understand how nobody noticed; L7’s self-titled debut came out on Epitaph Records (which, at that time, was a really small record label with limited resources – and Bad Religion was the only band of note on their roster) and it was followed by Smell The Magic in 1990 on Sub Pop which, again, was still a pretty small operation, at the time. Because of the nature of the music business at the time, L7 really had to bust some heads and rock like animals on stage and on their albums in order to be taken seriously and it was still very much an uphill battle for the band but, by 1992, the world had finally caught up. By 1992, L7 was finally poised to accept some of the praise that they rightly deserved – as long as they had some new music to justify it. Bricks Are Heavy was the album that L7 offered, and it was precisely what the world needed in order to understand what the underground already knew; joined by the “it” producer of the day (Butch Vig) and armed with a set of songs which exemplified every aspect of the band, L7 was ready to take over the world and they did.
Thirty years later, the vinyl reissue of Bricks Are Heavy still mauls those who run across it with equal amounts of glee and fury. As soon as needle catches groove on the A-side, “Wargasm” exemplifies that furious glee but, even better than the band had previously, L7 also injects a healthy dose of social commentary and a scathing indictment of the American war machine. Lines like, “Body bags and dropping bombs/ The Pentagon knows how to turn us on” perfectly encapsulate Americans’ fascination with war as well as condemning it bitterly, while lines like, “Tie a yellow ribbon ’round the amputee/ Masturbate, watch it on TV/ Crocodile tears for the refugee” ring as more pertinent and damning now, in 2022, than they did upon their first release; Donald Trump’s presidency and every event in it was nearly broadcast in real-time, and (certainly without meaning to) “Wargasm” predicts it with impressive clarity here – a fact made chilling by Donita Sparks’ offhanded, almost cavalier delivery.
The emotionally mute vocal precedent set by “Wargasm” is upheld by the opening minute and a half of “Scrap,” but Sparks proves that she can’t remain disconnected for too long as, before the song ends, her vocals reach a fury pitch and she sings about huffing fumes and killing brain cells. That development brings fans and the band together to meet each other in the music as the proverbial plate spins; indifference (which was the popular emotional go-to in the Nineties) meets callous apathy here, and the result presents as a sense of disgust that both parties will be able to feel and feed off of. It may sound unlikely in print, but that noxious fuel supercharges the songs as well as listeners’ imaginations – as “Scrap” squeals to a close, a sneer will have already overtaken listeners’ faces subconsciously, and that bad attitude will feel awfully good.
As well as Bricks Are Heavy opens, that strong start pales the moment that “Pretend We’re Dead” opens with the slickest, snottiest New Wave presentation that Kurt Cobain probably wished he could have written. To this day, thirty years later, Butch Vig’s production finds a stride with the band on “Pretend We’re Dead” which lets L7 keep the snot and snarl that their best songs have about them front and centre, and Vig compliments that perfectly with an ultra-slick sound which would eventually become his hallmark. Basically, the song and production are a peak moment for both parties and, to this day, it feels like a revelation; the flanger effect on Suzi Gardner’s guitar makes her performance that much more slippery smooth, while Jennifer Finch’s bass punctuates the chord progression perfectly and Demetra Plakas’ drums keep it all contained – just like Dave Grohl’s drums did on Nevermind. The result is sublime, even thirty years later- and, in the context of Bricks Are Heavy as an album, the placement of “Pretend We’re Dead” in the A-side’s running will have listeners glowing; as the song helps the rest of the album’s A-side slide along smoothly, and keeps listeners tightly engaged.
The slickness of “Pretend We’re Dead” really helps listeners make it through the sardonic pacing of “Diet Pill” (which, as anybody who has ever come off of speed can tell you, actually mirrors the song’s languid movements) and will leave them surly and gritting their teeth when “Everglade” transplants a little cock-rock caprice into a great, by-the-numbers alt-rock song before “Slide” howls through to tell some dickhead it’s over to close out the side. Listening to Bricks Are Heavy now, in the twenty-first century, it’s easy to forget that while hard feelings break-up songs did exist in the Nineties and girls growling overtly about a man’s poor conduct did appear occasionally, directly calling him out on his behavior was uncommon. Break-ups weren’t uncommon, but addressing them with lines like, “I put your stuff out on the porch – lettin’ you slide/ You pissed in your pants and put out the torch – lettin’ you slide/ You splattered the bathroom with your hair dye – lettin’ you slide/ I’m kickin’ you out and you know why” wasn’t even close to the norm. “Slide” played like a revolution in 1992 because it finally called men out on their bullshit in a very direct way; it forced images of poor conduct and frustration at little domestic faults to the foreground and presented them in a way which illustrated that such things matter. The grind-y nature of the production and chord progression is pretty straight forward but, with this lyric sheet, L7 really opened a new field wide for women in rock. Simply said, “Slide” made it easier for Liz Phair to get liberated in Guyville, for Sleater-Kinney to go out in The Woods and revel in the clip and overdrive in that space, and for many other female musicians to get looked at seriously. Granted, it could be argued that many other artists helped to pave the way, but L7’s contribution to that development here cannot, should not be denied or under-valued.
As strongly as the A-side closed, listeners may be startled by how simplistically the B-side of Bricks Are Heavy starts. As “One More Thing” opens, Plakas punches out a really stark and simple beat over which Sparks and Garner lay down a dense and emotionally strained guitar performance before bassist Jennifer Finch steps to the mic (for the second time on the album) to warn listeners that, after everything she has already endured, “one more thing” might just be the one that makes her crack. It may sound odd, but Finch’s performance here is unsettling because, compared to Sparks’ over-the-top vocal presence as well as that of Gardner, Finch is far more understated (or seething – depending upon your how one chooses to look at it) – and that can amount to a different type of sensation entirely, for listeners.
After “One More Thing” re-shifts the emotional focus on Bricks Are Heavy, L7 begins sneering, renewed with “Mr. Integrity.” There, with a rambling and raucous kind of rhythm (which sounds more than a little like something Headstones might have lifted for “Cemetery” on their Picture Of Health debut – but the similarity is just coincidental) under her, Sparks just begins spitting acid at a man who doesn’t exactly fit his public persona. Now, Sparks has never gone on the record regarding the identity of “Mr. Integrity” (theories abound), but the concept of an “anti-rockstar” that many musicians would play with throughout the Nineties on full display here – as is Sparks’ opinion that it’s all bullshit; the song attempts to change public perception and succeeds about as well as Hole’s “Olympia,” Liz Phair’s “Johnny Feelgood” and Kim Deal’s lead vocal on “Gigantic” did and really sets L7 up honestly as potential (if unlikely) role models for girls who don’t necessarily aspire to being a princess when they grow up. The song offers a completely different direction to take for what they aspire to, and that is as refreshing now as it was in 1992. Likewise, the drum solo which appears in the song’s bridge is phenomenal and registers as being of a sort which was found nowhere else in rock, at the time.
After “Mr. Integrity,” the going gets spontaneously darker still, as the side plays. “Monster” side-winds its way along, with Gardner sounding more than a little like Peppermint Patti on a massive caffeine and nicotine jag before Bricks Are Heavy unloads its’ second greatest hit, “Shitlist.”
To this day, “Shitlist” remains a defining song for L7. Playing a little like an overdriven and mildly tarnished expression of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” the song simply stomps out proudly to announce itself with the words, “When I get mad/ And I get pissed/ I grad my pen/ And I write out a list/ Of all the people/ That won’t be missed/ You’ve made my shitlist,” and almost grunts dismissively in punctuation. In true Nineties fashion, “Shitlist” proudly announces its’ arrogant antipathy, and does so in a way which makes it really easy – expected, even – to shout the words back at the band. Donita Sparks’ vocals confront listeners in a bold way which loosely mirrors the defiance of cock rock at its finest, while her guitar interplay with Suzi Gardner oozes a swagger that’s one part Steve Jones in presence, three parts Joan Jett in unflinching passion. It’s as spectacular in 2022 as it was in 1992, and hasn’t aged a day.
While “Shitlist” would have been an excellent closer for Bricks Are Heavy, L7 still have some fireworks left to light in this running – and that light-show is represented by “This Ain’t Pleasure” – easily a crowning cap on an album which bears no missteps. As the song opens, all four members of the band trudge along languidly at first – seemingly from the exertion of the rest of the album’s running; Plakas plods along at a tempo which would make Black Sabbath seem fleet-footed, while Sparks, Gardner and Finch all fall in step and just grind minds to dust for about eighteen seconds before a switch flips and suddenly the song’s tempo picks up to hit listeners petulantly – instead of heavily – before falling back into the grind after a beautiful sprint. Trying to follow the song through its’ changes is decidedly difficult and, after having already run from the front of Bricks Are Heavy through most of the back, it can be exhausting – but there’s no question that there are some great hooks embedded beneath the palm-muted guitars which power the bridge of “This Ain’t Pleasure” and, when the power finally explodes into a set of pummeling drums to sound the final measures of the song, listeners will already know that they want to flip the record over and take another trip through the running. True, there is something noxious about “This Ain’t Pleasure” – but there’s something deliciously addictive about it too.
Equally delicious is the fact that the new Bricks Are Heavy vinyl reissues come in a couple of different variants for fans to choose from: one special edition pressed on 180-gram black vinyl, and one pressed on 180-gram gold vinyl with a gatefold cover and artifacts from the L7 archive included. Really, the frills collected for the color vinyl package can’t possibly amount to much because the music should be all listeners need – in this case; Bricks Are Heavy represents an incredible moment that could never hope to be repeated, done by a band who was at the absolute pinnacle of their powers. With Bricks Are Heavy, L7 proved that all you needed was willpower and dirty fingernails to shake the world to its foundations, and it still works; a generation later, as this reissue proves. [Bill Adams]
Vinyl Vlog 448 – L7 – Smell The Magic reissue: https://www.groundcontrolmag.com/vinyl-vlog-448/
L7’s 30th Anniversary edition Bricks Are Heavy vinyl reissue is out now. Buy it here, directly from Licorice Pizza Records.