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Girls Just Want to Have Funk : Luscious Jackson's four females play the game their way, incorporating New York's vibrant soundtrack of punk and hip-hop, jazz and soul.

August 21, 1994|Richard Cromelin | Richard Cromelin writes about pop music for Calendar.

'There sure are a lot of girl bands, women bands out now."

This looks like progress to Jill Cuniff, the co-founder of one of those groups, Luscious Jackson. When Cuniff, 28, and her partner, Gabby Glaser, 27, were budding teen-age musicians, role models were scarce. There was the punk-era English band the Slits, whom they idolized, pursued and interviewed, and that was about it.

"It's so hard to feel confident," says Cuniff. "Not every woman is like this, but one thing I've noticed among girls is that they're so shy about showing their artwork. You need a lot of encouragement to do it. I've known a lot of women musicians who once they're in their 20s have been able to overcome these things, but you have to go into a lot of work on yourself to get over that (expletive).

"I bet it's still really hard for girls, if they're surrounded by a bunch of guys who are like, 'Girls can't play guitar, they look stupid with guitars,' or whatever crap they're being told. . . . They say it doesn't look right, and I've known girls who have just believed that to such detrimental effect on themselves."

Now Luscious Jackson finds itself in a crowded field of role models for today's female aspirants. The New York quartet has been considered a potential key player ever since the EP "In Search of Manny" introduced its eclectic, patchwork sound in 1992.

The record was named the top EP of that year in the Village Voice's annual poll of the nation's rock critics, and the buzz has built steadily toward the release on Tuesday of the group's first full album, "Natural Ingredients" (see review, Page 64) . The band will open its tour with shows at LunaPark on Thursday and Fuzzyland on Saturday, following a swing through the Midwest on Lollapalooza's second stage.

But is Luscious Jackson the role model today's would-be girl-rockers will look to, when the stance of choice for bands seems to be that of strident avengers, arming their power-chords with rage and spraying their resentment at punk-rock tempos?

Luscious Jackson (a play on the name of former pro basketball star Lucius Jackson) stands apart in sound and temperament, blending sample-rich hip-hop, with its jazzy effervescence, and hard-edged R&B grooves into something urgent and yearning, like War backing the B-52's.

And while they're certainly no strangers to the battle of the sexes, Luscious Jackson's specialty is complex diplomatic issues rather than blood-and-guts trench warfare.

In the new album's "Deep Shag," a man's presence reduces the woman to something so small and infantile that she gets lost in the carpeting of the song's title. "Strongman" celebrates a more balanced union, with the support-encouraging chorus, "It takes a strong man to stand by a strong woman." "Find Your Mind" is a vivid depiction of women lost in a sea of one-night stands.

"That's a really important song to me, because it's about women who use their sexuality in a really negative and self-destructive way," says Cuniff, who wrote all the album's songs except Glaser's opening "Citysong."

"Women still are selling themselves really short and trying to get acknowledgment through their bodies and their looks and their sexuality," she continues, "and if they're doing it with the wrong people who don't respect them, it's just another vacuum like drugs. It's a way to avoid dealing with your own self.

"It's a real cultural thing. Young girls go out to bars and they basically get totally drunk and pick up men. It's sad, because it's really empty. It doesn't answer any questions. All it does is make you dislike yourself. . . . The whole chorus of 'Find Your Mind' is about dealing with yourself instead of running from yourself."

*

If this all sounds fairly sober and disciplined, well, that's Cuniff.

"I try to take my life really seriously, and lead a good life," says the singer, who uses meditation to cope with the pressure that comes with being a highly watched newcomer in the pop arena.

"Can't get involved in that. Just can't." She sounds as if she's drilling herself with a mantra. "It will kill you. That's like people who have drug habits. They get all involved in that (expletive), what other people think of them."

Bassist Cuniff and guitarist Glaser form an ultra-compatible team whose friendship dates back to their early teens. Children of the Village, they grew up in families where moms had careers and dads helped with the child-rearing, and "Our Bodies, Our Selves" and other feminist literature was scattered around.

When they started going to hear music together in the early '80s, they blossomed into groove-conscious daughters of New York's polyglot music and art scene, coming of age to a vibrant soundtrack of punk and hip-hop, jazz and soul.

"There's a spirit of that that I think we still feed off of," says Cuniff. "Making something that you really love and that's really interesting. Being excited."

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