Babes in Toyland’s origins lie in Sugar Baby Doll, a mid-’80s San Francisco supergrrroup of sorts involving Oregon-born high-school friends Kat(hy) Bjelland (pronounced, suitably enough, “be-yellin’ “) and Courtney Love, augmented by future L7 guitarist Jennifer Finch and a drummer whose name no one seems to remember. The group apparently never performed or recorded, although a very funny photograph survives; Kat also played with the charmingly named Italian Whore Nuns. Kat and Courtney soon moved to Minneapolis, but whether the latter was ever actually a member of Babes in Toyland depends upon whose memory is being prodded.
Around a nucleus of guitarist Bjelland and novice drummer Lori Barbero, the Babes plodded along as a four-piece through 1987-’88 before Kat took over the vocal slot and bassist Michelle Leon joined. The trio made its debut with the scrawny and brawling declaration of intent, Spanking Machine. Produced in Seattle by Jack Endino, the album makes up in spunk what it lacks in instrumental fluency: the group thuds cathartic tribal punk (not worlds away from the Slits crossed with Bauhaus) while Bjelland screeches like an otherworldly pairing of Bon Scott and Linda Blair. Spanking Machine wears thin pretty quickly, but is awesome in small doses, especially “He’s My Thing” and “Swamp Pussy.”
Recorded in London with John Loder, To Mother is doomier and only slightly more instrumentally accomplished, but the songwriting quality is considerably improved, especially in the scathing “Spit to See the Shine” and “Mad Pilot” (although “The Quiet Room” instrumental is a shameless cop of Bauhaus’ “King Volcano”). The eight-song Peel Sessions combines two sessions from ’90 and ’91 and serves as a demi-“greatest hits.” Leon quit literally days before the band recorded its next album, and was replaced by Maureen Herman.
Fontanelle, co-produced by Bjelland and Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, blasts off with one of the group’s best songs, “Bruise Violet,” allegedly a swipe at Courtney, who had already taken media heat for appropriating Bjelland’s kinder-punk fashions. (The song’s airing on Beavis and Butt-head, combined with Lollapalooza tour exposure, actually coalesced a bit of a suburban following for the group.) All told, the Babes roar through fifteen songs with a minimum of repetition; while the drastic upgrade in sonic clarity counts for a lot, Fontanelle‘s strength is that the trio has mastered its game without compromise.
The six-cut Painkillers contains a rerecording of “He’s My Thing” along with some B-sides and “Fontanellette,” a thirty-four-minute live rendition of the album taken from a raunchy April ’92 CBGB set that finds Bjelland’s psychobabble in rare form. (For the fan who must have everything, there’s the promo-only Live at the Academy, documenting eleven songs recorded two months after the CBGB gig.)
Released after a three-year studio gap, the plodding Nemesisters might as well have been called Lamesisters. The album begins promisingly with the slow and snarling “Hello,” but quickly devolves into weak songs and self-indulgence, including a horrendous butchering of Eric Carmen’s “All by Myself” and an incongruously perky take on Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.” Even the great cover artwork doesn’t make up for what’s inside.
Crunt is a cantankerous side-project by Bjelland (playing bass), her husband, Lubricated Goat frontal lobe Stuart Gray (aka Stu Spasm), and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion drummer Russell Simins, making a typically muscular contribution. Apart from one Kat vocal, this enthusiastic if offhand outing — recorded in Seattle — is pretty much Stuart’s show.