Caroline Records, 1991
**** Despite Pretty on the Inside's reputation as an unhinged, raw-sounding debut, a great deal of professional calculation went into putting this record together. Assigning production duties to alt-rock mamma Kim Gordon and über-hip knob twiddler Don Fleming (who had just finished recording Sonic Youth's Goo and had previously worked with Teenage Fanclub and Dinosaur Jr.) was a shrewd move in terms of creating street cred for Love, whose musical pedigree was much more pop than punk. The elaborate, disturbing art collage in the liner notes looked like the scrapbook of an incest victim and wisely highlighted the album's greatest strength: Courtney Love's way with words. Critics who believe all of her musical successes were handed to her by inside sources would be wise to take a look back--she knew what she was doing from the beginning. Judiciously toeing the line between the evasively obtuse and overtly obscene, Love growled out nightmarish tirades about sexual harassment and assault ("Mrs. Jones"), adolescent selfishness and vanity ("Teenage Whore"), and disease and spiritual decomposition ("Pretty on the Inside," "Garbage Man"), along with some astute observations on competitiveness among women ("Good Sister/Bad Sister," "Babydoll"). "Mrs. Jones" is a particularly rattling sketch of what appears to be a rape scene, with Love seamlessly handling three perspectives: the ugly attacker ("Look into the bloodrot, you suicide bitch/It takes an hour with you to make me want to live"), the vengeful victim ("The abortion left an abscess/Don't ever talk to me that way again"), and the supportive narrator ("Just like a pro she takes off her dress and kicks you down in her snow white pumps"). Harrowing and highly effective, Pretty on the Inside holds up remarkably well 12 years after its release.
Live Through This
**** The timing of its release couldn't have been poorer (less than a week after Kurt Cobain's death), but the quality of its content couldn't have been any better. Unencumbered by a need to prove herself to the indie underworld, which weighed down parts of Pretty on the Inside, Love opened the door to melody and dynamics and pulled in the hotshot production team of Paul Q. Kolderie and Sean Slade (widely respected for their work on the first two Radiohead records). The result was a loud, lush rock record of uncompromising strength and unexpected depth. Building upon her lyrical skills, she added more nuance to her metaphors, reworking benign clichés into darker analogies ("I made my bed, I'll lie in it/I made my bed I'll die in it"; "Be a martyr or just look like one"). She also ended up as an unintentional soothsayer for the terrible times that would soon engulf her: The title alone was a tragically appropriate dare, and the album's most successful single, "Doll Parts," sounded like a premature widow's lament ("Some day you will ache like I ache"). She did a bang-up job of illuminating her perpetually mutating persona by covering the Young Marble Giants' "Credit in the Straight World" ("Lots of credit in the straight world gets you high"), alluding to critics who had dismissed her as a starfucking phony ("I want to be the girl with the most cake/I fake it so real I am beyond fake"), and acknowledging the fact she almost lost custody of her daughter shortly after her birth ("I want my baby, who took my baby?"). The album also benefited immensely from prudent sequencing, opening with one of Hole's strongest songs, "Violet," and closing with "Rock Star," a rollicking, good-humored fuck-you to Olympia hipsters.
My Body, the Hand Grenade
City Slang, 1997
*** Perhaps in an effort to appease fans waiting for the overdue follow-up to Live Through This, Hole's British label released a 14-track collection of the band's early singles, B-sides, various outtakes, and live performances. While it certainly wasn't revelatory, it did capture some entertaining and infamous moments. The first five tracks (initially released as 7-inch singles) were embryonic examples of the brutal beauty that began to unfold on Pretty on the Inside. Creepy and highly un-PC, "Retard Girl" chronicles childish ridicule directed at, well, a little retarded girl, while "Dicknail," an early attempt at addressing sexual violence, takes a perplexing, humorous turn when Love screams, "Here comes Santa Claus!" at the song's climax. Especially appreciated is the inclusion of "20 Years in the Dakota", an uncharacteristically lighthearted recognition of the Yoko Ono comparisons and one of the catchiest songs the group ever recorded. Other highlights include "Beautiful Son," a heartwarming valentine to a lover who likes to dress up in his girlfriend's clothes, and a gripping rendition of "Old Age," a Nirvana rarity that Cobain apparently allowed her to cover and she apparently forgot to credit him for.
* After endless delays and countless collaborations with outside songwriters, Hole released a monumentally disappointing third record and sent a clear signal that the well had run dry. The inappropriate choice of producer Michael Beinhorn (known primarily for his work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers) likely contributed to the album's cold, crystalline sound, and stalwart guitarist Eric Erlandson got a little glad-handy with the effects pedals, but much of the blame had to land on Love's shoulders. Apparently the growth spurt that precipitated Live Through This was over and she was landlocked as a writer. Collaborations with Billy Corgan yielded two decent singles ("Celebrity Skin" and "Malibu"), but the majority of the record was weakened by Love's lackluster writing. Instead of witty inversions of clichés, she recycled some of her own material ("Tear the petals off of you/And make you tell the truth") and offered up the clichés themselves ("I feel the horses come galloping"; "I cry and no one can hear"). This might have been more palatable if the hooks were there or some grit remained, but they just weren't and it sounded like the severely neutered, highly polished swan song that it was.