By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Forget the fact that Kat Bjelland was once an alternative-rock icon--she sure has. Forget Lollapalooza 1993 and dolly socks and Joan Jett collaborations and zine queens and Sassy and MTV and the Neal Karlen book and (please) former bandmate Courtney Love. Forget Babes in Toyland, in other words--or at least get them out of your system once and forever by buying those three (or is it four?) rare/live CD anthologies on EFA/Almafame. Once you do, set all that aside and listen to "Gone Away," the first track on Katastrophy Wife's debut album, Amusia, which will be rereleased domestically next month on Navarre/Almafame.
Listen to Bjelland's forceful bellow: shrill yet supple, indifferent to anything so dainty as hitting notes. Notice the longing for oblivion in the lyrics--"You all love to have your say/I don't mind I've gone away"--and how she does anything but disappear. Getting Iggy with the groove, she punches a hole in every word, then explodes into that ungodly shriek over the "Kool Thing" funk, sustaining her howl for an eternity of 11 seconds. This is the chorus, you soon realize. And you've just heard the Sgt. Pepper of rock-'n'-roll screams.
"Gone Away" is the kind of music that makes me wish I had enemies so that I could use this song against them. I wanna wage Panama-invasion-style psychic warfare on people who deserve it, tying up various nincompoops and placing them in front of Ozzy-size speakers in my living room so I can press the play button and observe. I can imagine the first verses kicking in as the villains tremble. Then that Bjelland screech: "Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaggghhhhhh!"--and then their heads explode! Lambs to the slaughter! Melons to the Gallagher! Tie up Tim Russert, consensus "attack dog" for NBC: "Screeeeeeee"--Ka-plow! Or the people who made Sidewalks of New York: "Yaaaaaghhhhhh"--Ker-plaff! Or anyone who ever used the term fox-core: "Hwaaaaaaaaaaaaa"--Ka-sploooff! Think of the possibilities! Not Kat-as-trophy-wife; Kat-as-musical-guillotine!
Now remember all the things I told you to forget. Why is this sound not huge? Why isn't everyone using Amusia for similar purposes? Why did the album come out last June on London's Almafame to the acclaim of...several? None of the local corporate papers (this one included) reviewed it. None of the national magazines looked up from what they were doing.
Okay, granted, the CD's American distribution was limited, and granted, alt-rock is dead. And perhaps Bjelland's iconography is all wrong even for riot grrrls now facing their third-life crisis: She's been playing with two guys these days, one of them the father of her child, no less (though just as this review was being readied for publication, Bjelland called to tell me that her drummer and ex-husband, Glen Mattson, had quit the group). A boy-boy-girl triumvirate doesn't exactly conjure fantasies of glorious, violent gynarchy or "We Are Family" sisterhood. Maybe Bjelland's indifference to any sort of publicity is the culprit: After the hype machine finished with Babes in Toyland, you could imagine the singer-guitarist disgustedly swearing off videos and such. Now, over the abbreviated "You Really Got Me" riffage of "Git Go," she wails, "I never kissed the ass of cash/But then again I never had your know-how."
Oh, and there's the little matter of her band sucking until a couple of years ago. My pal Christina Schmitt caught one Mayslack's show last spring and she gushed about how much Bjelland's guitar-playing had improved, how the new songs were what everyone hoped Babes in Toyland could become, how the new album was the record of Bjelland's career. I saw the same show and requested a review copy of Amusia but it never came in the mail--this rave is a gesture of penance for my not simply plunking down the 17 well-earned bucks she asked for at the time.
Still, if the album is Bjelland's anti-Celebrity Skin (and not quite her Live Through This), does anyone besides Mayslack's regulars care? The singer's caterwauling and coos indeed improve upon Babes in Toyland's Killdozer-meets-the Cocteau Twins swirl for the simple reason that the singer-guitarist has developed as a songwriter. But the very fact that I would reference such bands (along with Gallagher) perhaps indicates the demographic problem Bjelland faces in a universe of young taste buds.
Still, I love retro, and this album ain't retro: "Knife Fight" could school the White Stripes in modern punk-blooze dirge. "Anathema" (with Mark Mallman on organ) is just screwed up enough to please Marilyn Manson wieners. The vocals on that cut consist of nothing other than ghost howls, puke sounds, and the line: "Wait, have you gone insane?/This is just what it looks like/This is just what it sounds like." Children, this music is for you.
Last year Bjelland even turned down a job in Courtney Love's new band, Bastard, so she could tour Europe with Katastrophy Wife, where the group is reportedly very popular. Amusia suggests that it was Love's loss.