Three decades later, the classic third L7 album pulsates with an energy palpable for these times
Few albums in 1992 were as appropriately titled as L7’s Bricks Are Heavy, which turns 30 this month.
The album arrived in the first wave as alternative rock blew up when the likes of Nevermind and Ten exploded in the fall of 1991.
It carried with it one of that wave’s big producers — Butch Vig — who co-produced Nevermind and the Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish (and would do the same for the latter’s Siamese Dream the following year).
It was L7’s first crack at being on a major label — Slash being a Warners subsidiary — after a self-titled debut on Epitaph in 1988 (that label’s first full-length album) and then Smell the Magic on Sub Pop in 1990.
The latter was a step forward, particularly with the killer opening salvo of “Shove” and “Fast and Frightening” (the latter of which has been the band’s de rigeur set closer ever since).
The stage was set for L7’s shot at the big time. As Nirvana had gone from producer Jack Endino on Bleach to co-producing with Vig on Nevermind, L7 went from Endino on Smell the Magic to co-producing with Vig.
The results don’t sound like a compromise. Bricks Are Heavy sounds clean, but never slick, as the heaviness at L7’s core remains intact.
Unapologetically feminist, the band had formed Rock For Choice the year before, and that viewpoint, coupled with their sound, made for a hefty punch that still resonates.
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“Shitlist” connects to this day, because even though the names have changed, the targets of Donita Sparks’ righteous anger are still out there and, if anything, have gotten worse.
The target of bassist Jennifer Finch’s “Everglade” is more specific. While it’s not known where “Girls to the front” was first uttered, Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna popularized it. It became an ongoing thing needed at Bikini Kill shows, for the safety of the women in the crowd and the band itself, to have the women at the front. The story of “Everglade” takes the encounter with an unwanted, unruly man in the front and turns it into his comeuppance.
The drunk man tries to turn from unintentional violence to intentional, only to “trip over his own feet” and injure himself and hit the floor, which gets him a one-way ticket out of the venue — “So you wanna have some fun?/Well, break out the big guns/Rednecks on parade/’Don’t cross my line,’ says Everglade.”
Fresh off the first Gulf War and a decade before false intel and worse reasoning led to the second, “Wargasm” opens Bricks in fast, intense fashion, setting the tone right away, with metallic riffage and a Yoko Ono sample leading into the solo and over the ending.
The lyrics attack the use of the injured for propaganda and faux concern for those impacted in the site of war themselves, while keeping an eye on those in charge (“Body bags and dropping bombs/The Pentagon knows how to turn us on”).
Lead guitarist Suzi Gardner snarls and sneers through “Slide”, about ditching a loser boyfriend who makes worse messes and destroys her stuff.
Her “Monster” is better, more rock than metal or punk, as close as any of L7’s writers got to breaking their self-imposed “no love songs” rule.
Finch’s “One More Thing” slows things down for a mood of angry, tired resignation that something or someone will be the last straws in a series of indignities that causes the protagonist to snap.
“Diet Pills” is the grunge “Goodbye Earl” (sounding musically like it could have fit onto an Alice in Chains album) without the happy feel-good chorus. Sparks delivers the appropriate menace in the tale of a physically and mentally abused woman who finally kills her tormentor. But there’s no tidy ending with a roadside stand with Tennessee ham and strawberry jam, just fleeing the scene with two children and only $200.
The song that breaks the most with the formula is the one that turned into a hit — “Pretend We’re Dead”, which reached the Top 10 of the alternative charts. It’s the most obvious single on the album, with fuzzy guitar crunch (complete with a backwards solo by Gardner over the outro) and the chorus hook paired to the lyrics against apathy in the face of the last years of Reagan into the first Bush administration.
Lyrics like “They’re neither moral nor majority/Wake up and smell the coffee/Or just say no to individuality,” while not inaccurate to 1992 or now, certainly wound up underselling the threat that was brewing under the surface, a threat which calls apathy its friend.
Not everything is about wider issues. “Scrap”, co-written by Sparks and Brett Gurewitz, dated back to the sessions for the group’s first album, is an almost-boogie stomper based on an actual person who used to huff paint in the garage of the house where Epitaph’s studio was.
If Bricks Are Heavy remains pretty constant in maintaining the heaviness, it is also consistent, especially with Finch and the ever-efficient Dee Plakas on drums holding down the bottom end.
The latter contributed a surf rock-style beat to “Mr. Integrity”, also inspired by a real person, albeit one Sparks won’t reveal (inspiring some guesses over time).
“This Ain’t Pleasure” capably brings things to a close, nicely teasing a sludgy doom metal opening for about 20 seconds before turning it into an uptempo ripper that owes a little bit to the hair metal of the Sunset Strip as much as it does punk.
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L7 followed with 1994s Hungry For Stink, which has proven to be more of an artistically successful follow-up than reaction at the time. By the time they’d finished 1997’s The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum, Finch was gone. It would be their last major label release.
They limped to the finish with 1999’s Slap Happy, which had its moments.
Unfortunately, its chances were undercut when their label’s distributor went bankrupt. They couldn’t afford to buy back copies of their album to distribute, so the copies went into a landfill.
The increasingly dire circumstances by that point had led Gardner to leave, effectively ending the band.
That could have been it, except social media led to gathering places for fans. The idea came about to do a documentary, funded through Kickstarter. The response from fans was such that not only was the documentary made (and released in 2016 as the watchable “L7: Pretend We’re Dead”), the key lineup reunited for more of the live shows that were always a band strength. The band started to record again.There was the occasional single before 2019’s Scatter the Rats, which, if not peak L7, showed the band still had plenty to say and fire with which to say it.
Bricks Are Heavy remains the key piece of their discography, a deserved breakthrough in the middle of their peak three-album run.
Chock full of give-no-fucks feminist attitude and smarts, coupled with all four players locked in, it still hits as heavy as it did 30 years ago.