Babes In Toyland
Reviewed on this page:
Spanking Machine - Fontanelle - Painkillers -
If you care, it's "Babes" as in babies, not "Babes" as in chicks. This three-female post-punk Minneapolis band (formed in
1988) is widely considered the inspiration of the Riot Grrrl movement, because they created the idea that an all-X chromosome
punk band was in itself a revolutionary act. (Apparently by the late 80s everyone had forgotten about previous penisless
punk bands like the Slits, Raincoats and - god help us - the Bangles, and women in punk were far more likely to have a
boyfriend in a band than to be in a band themselves.) The funny part is, you could make an argument that BIT is actually
the antithesis of riot grrl: a band with reactionary sexual politics (lead singer/guitarist Kat Bjelland frequently punctuates
her songs with the phrase "you fucking bitch") that jumped to a corporate major label the first chance they got. Okay, enough
moralizing - what's the music like? Well, it's terrible - lo-fi, riffless, tuneless, pointless attitude rock - and despite
Warner's best efforts, the Babes managed only a couple of poor-selling albums and an EP before splitting up. Read on for
The best fan page I could find is about four years out of
date, but it's better than nothing. There was a book about Babes In Toyland, and we've reviewed it on our
book reviews page.
Kat Bjelland, vocals, guitar, songwriter; Michelle Leon, bass; Lori Barbero, drums.
Leon left 1992, replaced by Maureen Herman.
Spanking Machine (1989)
I don't know if this is their only release on Twin Tone, but it's the only one I've seen.
Definitely seek this out if you can stand the group's major label releases, because it's every bit as energetic and taut,
and the low-fi recording only makes it sound more authentic. "He's My Thing" and "Boto (W) Rap" are about as good as their Stooges imitation ever got, and there's even one great arranging trick: "You're Right" opens with frenetic
trebly guitar scratches over mellow mock-fusion bass and drums.
That said, I still hate the band: fourth-hand riffs ("Swamp Pussy"), forced emotional purging ("Vomit Heart" indeed),
unbelievably mannered frontwoman, and all. The first mid-song breakdown sounds cool, but by track three you realize it's just a formula,
and the rudimentary guitar playing and total lack of melody don't wear very well either.
To Mother (1991)
Seven tracks recorded in England. (DBW)
The Peel Sessions (rec. 1990-1991)
Basically the same material as To Mother, cut live in the studio.
Their Lee Ranaldo-produced major label debut; this is a record that seems lame at first, but only
repeated listenings reveal how incredibly bad it really is. At first you might not notice how calculated Bjelland's screams
are - like a bad actress in a slasher flick. You might not notice how her stubby, grinding guitar tone never varies from
track to track. You might not get sick of her ridiculous puns ("Handsome & Gretel," "Realeyes"), shock value exercises
("Bluebell") or irritating "huah!" exclamations all at once. But if you keep listening - and I sincerely hope you won't - all
will become clear, and you'll start to really want your money back. Herman and Barbero are less to blame: they didn't write
any of the songs, and they each have their shining moments (Herman on the slow "Quiet Room," Barbero playing interesting,
shifting rhythms throughout the disc). But somebody should have noticed how monstrously ill-conceived the whole thing
This is a leftovers album cranked out when the band was picked as the token females for Lollapalooza '93: a couple of outtakes
from Fontanelle ("Laredo," "Angel Hair"), a remake of a Spanking Machine cut ("He's My Thing"), a couple of new tunes
("Ragweed," "Istigkeit"). Side two is slightly more interesting, at least from a historical perspective: an entire live set
comprised of ten Fontanelle songs, more ragged and more fun than the studio versions. Which is not to
say it's actually listenable music. It's all intentionally incompetent, mid-tempo, three-chord loud rock, and every song sounds
pretty much the same. The riffs are rudimentary ("Bluebell," "Pearl"), with "Mother" the best of a sorry bunch; the
lyrics spewed out by Kat Bjelland are disconnected teen angst poetry; Herman's bass is nearly inaudible. Bjelland does manage
a good scream once in a while ("Handsome & Gretel"), and Barbero's pounding tribal rhythms might make you think an entire
percussion section is playing ("Blood").
Devil: Live Lollapalooza '93 (rel. 2000)
A big step forward to mediocrity: the recording is cleaner, Bjelland doesn't seem as enchanted by her own persona, and
there are a few undeniable good hooks ("Sweet '69," "Middle Man"). "Surd" has harmony vocals and guitar effects, and there are even a couple of
guitar solos ("Memory"). But since the Babes have lost most of what made them distinctive in the first place, they just sound like
your basic garage band, and it doesn't help that many of the songs run on way too long ("Ariel"). And just when you're
starting to root for them, they end the record with three annoying, jokey cover tunes, including Eric Carmen's "All By
Myself" and "We Are Family." This time out, Barbero gets three vocals (the unbearably repetitive "Drivin'," "Middle Man" and "Deep Song"),
and even Herman gets one ("Killer On The Road"). Produced by Tim Mac and the band.
The Further Adventures Of Babes In Toyland (rec. 1990-1995, rel. 2001)
An odds and ends compilation, including some Lollapalooza performances and the cover of "More, More, More" from the Spirit Of '73 charity album. (DBW)
Songs of the Witchblade: A Soundtrack to the Comic Books (Bjelland: 1998)
A comic book-inspired concept album.
BIT is credited with the opening "Overtura: Astroantiquity/Attacatastrophy," and other guests include Megadeth and Miho Hatori. (DBW)
Minneapolism: Live - The Last Tour (2001)
A reunion show recorded November 25, 2001.
Amusia (Katastrophy Wife: 2002)
Bjelland's new band; looks like she's still workin' the pun thing. (DBW)
Fair Is Foul & Foul Is Fair (2003)
One disc of hits (including a few unreleased odds and ends); one disc recorded live at the London Astoria in 2002.
All Kneel (Katastrophy Wife: 2005)