L7 – Smell The Magic

“How could a thirty-year-old album inspire a political discussion in 2020,” you ask? Well, come on – look at the state of the world, reader. It’s a heartbreaking fucking mess, and the man at the centre of the proverbial maelstrom has a well-documented history of exploiting and/or abusing women – so the logical reaction is to want to see women get a counterblow or two for their trouble. It’s for that reason now is a perfect time to revisit L7’s first great blast – the quintessential shot against the patriarchy, Smell The Magic. Here, L7 rocked the establishment by viewing male musicians as equals and never once playing a submissive or lesser role to them. The band rocks out with their proverbial cocks out, made no apology for that and proved they could be as much (or more) of a force as “the boys,” any old day of the week. Better still, the album actually GAINED in stature over time – it went from being originally released as a six-song, 12” (vinyl) EP in 1990, but was enlarged to being a nine-cut, full-length CD release when it was reissued in 1991.

To this day (and regardless of the remastering applied), listeners will sit up straight and at attention as soon as the thick and almost attenuated guitar lick which opens “Shove” – the first cut on the album – sounds off. Just as was the case in 1990, listeners will be struck hard by the HEAVINESS of it; one needs to keep in mind that, in 1990, guitar rock was doing well but the cock rock slickness in it had had yet to be stripped away with the help of Grunge, and bands like Slaughter, Guns N’ Roses, Motley Crue and Warrant were still worrying about their hair while also receiving platinum record certifications. L7 appeared and acted like none of that shit ever existed or, if it did, it was totally lacking in any power or energy; “Shove” arrives fully formed, heavy as hell and with a singular vision that every listener can understand and get on board with – but it is happening whether they get on or not. The the combination of the chugging, blues-infused guitar, thunderous but pocket-dwelling drums and Suzi Gardner’s vocal – which sounds like she may have gargled with battery acid before picking up the mic – feels like the sort of anthem which starts a movement; and “Shove” definitely was instrumental in starting a couple of them (Riot Grrl and Grunge), but the sound is still incredibly infectious to this day. 

“Shove” gets L7 and Smell The Magic moving perfectly but the cut which follows it, “Fast and Frightening,” ups the ante by screaming out a far smoother guitar figure – which somehow feels even more menacing. Here, Donita Sparks steals the mic and spits acerbically in all the right ways from the beginning of the cut to its end, while also painting the enduring portrait of the Riot Grrl for listeners (“I heard that girl is fast and frightening/ Dirty hair, and a laugh that’s mean/ Her neighbors call her an evil machine”). That would be enough to make this song essential listening, but the band compliments Sparks’ assault perfectly as they set up a speedy and surly creation which is actually capable of playing with the boys on any cock rock stage (there are dirt bike references here that Nikki Sixx wouldn’t have been able to turn away from), but also putting a uniquely feminine spin on it (the roll that Sparks puts on the R in ‘frightening’ is so stereotypically metal, although it is a stretch – as lines like “Straight girls wish they were dykes” illustrate) which puts a fantastic contrast between sound, content and sexual identity.

After “Fast and Frightening” lets out, “(Right On) Thru” [not to be confused with Nirvana’s “Spank Thru” –ed] scales back the tempo a bit for some angry highway cruising before “Deathwish” closes out the side with some truly inventive songwriting which is far more noticeable in this context than it was on the 1991 CD reissue because it closes the side – and forces listeners to pay attention, by extension. There, L7 sort of lift the rhythm (and, arguably, the vocal melody) from Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” for the verses and just allow themselves to monotone their way through a truly angry ode to self-destructive behavior (lines like “She wakes up wet in a shower stall/ Sewn together, bangs her head on a wall/ She goes hitchhiking at three a.m./ Bruised and bloody, does it over again” remain some of the most affecting of the early Grunge era), which also foreshadows some of L7’s greatest work (“Deathwish” feels like sort of a dry run for “Shitlist”) and will leave listeners’ heads spinning as the needle lifts. Even now – thirty years later – there won’t be a question in those who hear the first side of Smell The Magic regarding how far they’ll go through the running, the only question will be how fast they can flip the record over for the vinyl’s second serving.

Granted, the B-side does not open with the single greatest song that L7 could have chosen for this sequence of cuts, (the idea of “’Til The Wheels Fall Off” is better than the execution of it – it sounds like it fell off a demo tape by a Judas Priest tribute band), but that doesn’t mean business doesn’t pick up after the side’s first three and a half minutes. “Broomstick” still plays like the single greatest Hairway To Steven-era Butthole Surfers song that the Surfers left on a piece of paper in the trashcan in a hotel room somewhere. There, Sparks and Gardner lay down a dense layer of guitars which can’t help but seethe angrily, while the drums and bass laid out by Jennifer Finch and Demetra Plakas stomp along at a hard but consistent rate. The instrumental performance is imposing – a focus upheld firmly by Gardner, who delivers a vocal performance which straddles the lines between torment (check out lines like, “What’s the use of lying/ I won’t believe you/ What’s the use of crying/ It won’t relieve you”) and fury. After that, “Packin’ A Rod” sticks a guitar figure so distorted that it actually manages to sound gristled in its delivery to a song which ignores gender in its disdain for unfaithful lovers while “Just Like Me” sets its sights on rock star aspirations without lightening its delivery to more closely resemble the purveyors of platinum records of the day before “American Society” sews up the ends that the band has left dangling with perfectly unceremonious vocal grunts and guitar snarls. While the sound could certainly not be characterized as such, there’s a certain serenity which can be found between the crunch of the guitars and the line that Gardner and Sparks draw between themselves and everyone else they see with lines like “Don’t want to be rich/ Now can’t you see the way they dress/
They dress – well…” 

That last “us and them” line is the one on which the song ends, and it’s a just about perfect way to close these proceedings – there’s a timeless quality about it that anyone – regardless of age or social stature – can identify with; everyone likes to separate themselves from those with whom they do not feel as though they identify, and that it is the final thought on Smell The Magic makes it feel like a battlecry. Of course, L7 would go on to further hone and refine that separation between themselves and those with whom they did not identify but, here, the final salvo represented by “American Society” feels definitive; like the calling card that L7sought to leave which would identify them above all. It’s for that reason the fact that “American Society” was one of the “add-on” tracks which took Smell The Magic from “EP” to “full-length” status feels like the perfect statement to end on; it represents the sort of irony that no one in the alt-rock and/or grunge communities could really tear themselves away from.

…And, as the side ends and the needle lifts, listeners will find they’re left feeling something. Depending on their age – if they’re old enough to remember when Smell The Magic came out the first time (well, the first time all nine cuts were released together – in 1991, on CD), they’ll walk away feeling renewed; while L7’s Smell The Magic always prided itself on the fact that it was one of the more pungent things to emanate from Puget Sound, listeners will find to their joy that the music here has aged better than seventy-five per cent of the other music which came from that region in that era (come on, be honest – Mudhoney’s Piece Of Cake was a spiritual cohort to this release in spite of having been released about two years after Smell The Magic, and it sounds dated now, compared to the tone and texture of this reissue). Conversely, those who have only now absorbed Smell The Magic for the first time will do so elated; those new to this release will find it has obvious sonic connections to bands like Yamantaka // Sonic Titan and Dilly Dally; in that way, they’ll find a greater musical history and community to absorb. That is something which is simply impossible to ignore, and ensures that it will broaden the legacy of L7. Because of that, this reissue is positively essential.

Bill Adams

Bill Adams is Editor-in-Chief of Ground Control Mag.