Girls Against Boys – Freak*On*Ica

4 out of 5

I realize I’m likely one of like ten people who legitimately digs this album, especially given that I also like the rest of GVSB’s material.  What can I say?  It wasn’t my first exposure to the group – that would have been through the Mallrats and Clerks soundtracks, which took songs from Cruise – but having been turned on to their sound via that first exposure, Freak had recently come out and I figured I might as well get their newest effort… So it was my first full album.  And maybe because I wasn’t neck-deep in indie-music assholes then (yessss score one for imagery), my ‘this ain’t cool’ detectors weren’t yet primed to detect the major label sheen, but the album matched enough of what I’d heard to work for me, and became a common spin back then, a trend which has mostly continued to this day.

Which isn’t to say I can’t appreciate negative reactions from fans, who found the sultry slink of their favorite DC-punkers-turned-smokey-Chicago-barfly band ditched – along with longtime producer Ted Niceley – in favor of amped up riffs, more aggressive singing from gravel-throated Scott McCloud, and an electronic dross, all zipped up to a single-ready tempo… So if you were a fan in the late 90s, watching all these Nirvana acts get big while you sat on your couch in a torn Touch and Go shirt, sorting cassettes, yeah, Freakonica was on Geffen and it was clearly a major label effort.

I just don’t think it was all that bad.

The late night city divebar sensibility had definitely been exchanged for LA and clubs, but as much as the danceable music reflects that change, so, often, do the lyrics, picking at (in McCloud’s sparse, offhand manner) the emptiness of that life.  The organic surge of double bass and drums became madcap drumming and a heavy key emphasis, but producer Nick Launay (whom the Allmusic review singles out as a major label stooge, but the dude’s resume is legit) passes everything through this fuzzy, washed out atmosphere: The perfect proxy for the shift from the streets to the big stage.  In that sense – and I’m not claiming its this meta, rather a byproduct of the process – the album’s changes in sound are a commentary… on the album’s changes in sound.

I also think isolating this as something wholly separate from the group’s discography (when I saw them live on the tour for the following album, songs from every album but this one were played) isn’t looking at things holistically: The slide from a rawer sound into something more polished had already begun on House of GVSB – which, fine, they already knew they were major label contracted at that point, but people still cite it as a classic release – and the group maintained a lot of Freak’s aggression (and lyrical content) for their “return” to their roots with You Can’t Fight What You Can’t See.

The group does seem to tire of the album’s relentless posturing toward the end, with songs slowing down and getting repetitive, questionably nibbing some industrial moves from Nine Inch Nails and maybe chuckling at the whole affair, but even this self-commentary isn’t such an alien move for the group: To my ears, much of Cruise is GVSB poking fun at the loungey swagger of their debut.

Freak*On*Ica is a major label concession for a grunge-hungry era.  Undeniably.  This doesn’t mean it’s not a good listen, or a quality compromise.  GVSB caught my ear with their heavy groove and low-end centric riffage.  Passing through all their albums, these are still the primary elements of my favorite songs, and those elements are in heavy rotation on their major label release.  It may OD the attitude, relegating it to your 90s pile, so maybe warn your ears up with some of those alterna-classics first, and then give Freak a listen.  It’s not perfect, but it stands out, in a positive way, both in relation to its major label peers at the time, as well as the group’s catalogue.