Though the current incarnation of the band includes only two of its original members, The Slits continue to be a legendary byword in musical history, not just because of the hybrid reggae punk sounds they were pioneering in late-’70s London but because they were unashamedly proud of their status as a girl band. Although Siouxsie & The Banshees’ Budgie briefly handled drum duties, taking over from departed member Paloma Romero (aka Palmolive), the core trio of Viv Albertine, Tessa Pollitt and Ari Up gave the group an amazingly potent, female-centric power. The band split in 1982, three years after the release of their debut LP, and though Albertine was a part of the band reunion in 2005, it was a short lived reformation that has since seen a drafting of new members Adele Wilson, Anna Schulte and Hollie Cook (daughter of Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook), all of whom are present on this third album.
Trapped Animal was released on the thirtieth anniversary of their groundbreaking LP Cut, a move that has the contradictory effect of celebrating the band’s epically brilliant debut while giving this new material a standard it can never really match. Interim Slits efforts have been interesting but nothing has topped their earliest work, a collection of songs which still sound cutting edge three decades after their conception. In their defence, Up and co were writing in a very particular era, when King’s Road punk and Ladbroke Grove reggae were redefining culture in their own revolutionary way, and dub was pouring out of radio speakers everywhere; Cut forged everything together with an almost alchemical magic, but the burst of gold it produced came at a time ripe for wonders. Does the current musical climate offer this dreadlocked, Germaican warrior woman the same auspices?
Still politically astute and undeniably energetic, Trapped Animal is anything but lazy. A concern with relevant, contemporary issues is decidedly present, but there is a heavy handedness on certain tracks that seems overbearing. Heavy opener ‘Ask Ma’ takes men’s childlike behaviour to hand, blaming both baby-like males and the mothers that coddle them – all astute observations, but the immediate hostility is disarming and the rhyming of “faeces” with “pieces” really fails. This is followed by the sexually explicit ‘Lazy Slam’ in which Up commands somnambulant sexual favours with a desire that seems at odds next to its castigating predecessor, sounding crude rather then empowering. ‘Pay Rent’ is catchy in a retro-pop fashion, ‘Reject’ hits a shouty chord or two, and title track ‘Trapped Animal’ showcases some expert timing, but there is an unstable, inconsistent rhythm to the album’s fabric that becomes clear almost from the outset.
‘Peer Pressure’ speeds things up midway with Latin-inflected reggae, and it’s this song and the dub-rich skank of ‘Partner From Hell’ that marks the better half of the album. ‘Be It’s vibrating rhythms are lush and expansive, while the head-nodding, bass-led dub of ‘Babylon’ is divinely hypnotic. Up is unafraid to relinquish the mic on both ‘Be It’ and ‘Cry Baby’, a sweet lovers’ number that slots into the more meditative tracks like honey. The raspy, troubling and almost hysterical angst of ‘Can’t Relate’ seems to explore its own darkness, while ‘Reggae Gyspy’ celebrates it. A seductive, Romany-inspired number hailing “the outcasts of the outcasts” and Up’s tree-climbing, forest dwelling, intercultural and cross-genre identity, though the changing tempo between simmering verse and rowdy chorus is just a little too hard to consolidate.
The European folk motifs weaved into the more traditional dub sounds on these two tracks echoes the genre-blending polemic of The Slits with style, while end song ‘Had A Day’ morphs with a swirling, avant-garde fluidity, revealing a still-burning penchant for the imaginative, irregular arrangements that made Cut so radical. What fails this album is the obvious, clashing friction between the faster, busier numbers at the album’s beginning and the slower reggae and dub arrangements that follow; it seems that Trapped Animal, perhaps knowingly, has named its own confusion. There’s no doubt that Up, Pollitt and their young cohorts have put together a genuine, obviously dedicated album, and it’s terrific to see one of music’s most singular frontwomen still creating passionately, but the strong and weak points on this album are too busy fighting each other to tip the balance either way.
[Narnack; October 30, 2009]
Tagged the slits