The contentious issue of cultural appropriation — which might have dogged any other hip-hop-rock quartet formed by two grown-up club kids and an ex-Beastie girl — is no match for the contact-high sensibility of lines like “I got pretty little feet they’re so petite / I got shiny little legs so nice and neat / My bellybutton-Q-tip it clean,” as Luscious Jackson details in “Let Yourself Get Down,” the infectiously funky groove that opens the seven-track In Search of Manny. The band’s graffiti-tag logo pretty much sums up the local pride and color that roots these New York women and their smart, catchy music.
Gabby Glaser (guitar, vocals) and Jill Cunniff (vocals, bass), friends since they started hanging out together in the East Village as junior protopunks around 1980, formed Luscious Jackson a little more than a decade later in a basement studio, rapping their offbeat adventures (“She Be Wantin It More,” “Daughters of the Kaos”) and aggravations (“Life of Leisure,” a rip at mooching slacker boys) over cool loops that owe something to ESG. As the group evolved toward the stage, drummer Kate Schellenbach (another Village pal, she was in the original punk incarnation of the Beastie Boys and played on the band’s 1982 Polly Wog Stew) joined, as did keyboardist Vivian Trimble. Although the all-fun In Search of Manny, released originally on the Beastie Boys’ indie label and then again via Capitol, was essentially recorded as a duo, the full band appears on two tracks, including “Bam-Bam,” a kitschy and gleeful party groove that became a showstopper.
Ironically, as Luscious Jackson grew into a mighty live act, its studio work — played on real instruments, with samples reduced to an incidental role — suffered, cutting back on the giddy carnival panic that moved Manny into high gear. The self-produced Natural Ingredients begins with “Citysong,” a right-on metropolitan manifesto, and then shifts nicely through the trance-poppy “Deep Shag” and the ominous wah-wah strut of “Angel,” but ultimately bogs down in repetitive time-wasters. Despite the cultural aphrodisiac of campy ’70s funk and soul ambience (complete with pops and scratches), the album is gripping only in fits and starts. Weak numbers fall flat and the good ones are worked to the bone. “Strongman” sends a stirring feminist message (“It takes a strong man to stand by a strong woman”), but the song’s weak melody fails it; “Energy Sucker” is defeated by the sketchy, lumbering dub track; “Here” is good disco fun that dances itself into a hole. Natural Ingredients may look good on paper, but sometimes a more artificial menu is better for the body.
The side-project Kostars are Cunniff and Trimble (although Schellenbach is their album’s beat-keeper and Glaser plays guitar on “Hey Cowboy”). Produced by Josephine Wiggs of the Breeders, the duo’s lite cocktail thing sounds like a genially relaxed Luscious Jackson relieved of its funky drummer. More agreeable than compelling, Klassics With a “K” breezes along on Trimble’s keyboards and gentle rhythms: “Red Umbrella” is almost a bossa nova, while “Don’t Know Why” (guest-starring Ween) is wistful acoustic folk-pop. Complete with automotive effects, “Jolene on the Freeway” finds a mellow groove and rides it with a bare-bones arrangement of synthesized percussion and melodic fillips. More than nice, but no substitute for the motherband’s best.
Cunniff’s solo album, a largely one-woman effort (she even painted the cover!), flies the flag with winning summer charm, waving LJ’s intimately seductive funky vibe in a variety of directions, all of them catchy, handsomely produced and seriously enjoyable. Songs about “Lazy Girls,” “NYC Boy” and “Eye Candy” bring upbeat spirit to winsome romance, adult acceptance and gently delivered determination that make her seem like a good pal catching you up on her news rather than a musician crafting songs. Sample lyric (from “Love Is a Luxury”): “Love, love is a luxury / I don’t need much ’cause you are enough for me / What if I never have a fortune or the world’s affection? / What if it is the way it is? Perhaps it is perfection / My bank account, I cleaned it out, nothing to worry about.”
Following one of Luscious Jackson’s unfinal hurrahs, Trimble formed a duo called Dusty Trails with Kostars producer Wiggs.