July 1997 – album reviews – The Geraldine Fibbers’ ‘Butch’ (“a uninhibited maelstrom of ferocious guitars that lash like electrified hair… black humour in spades, but the Fibbers’ brand of fucked-up country keeps the ravaged heartland heartstrings and sour juice intact”)

3 Jul

The Geraldine Fibbers; 'Butch'

The Geraldine Fibbers; ‘Butch’

Various riot-on grrls and drama queens, once they’ve tired of punking up girl-group lisping, like to play with those oh so challenging images of junkies and whores. Well, good luck, kids. Play nicely. But while you try on the roles like they’re attention grabbing prom dresses, Carla Bozulich has genuinely Been There, Done That during her own harrowing past. And she’s brought back a mass of bone-breaking songs with her on her voyage back from the brink. And her band, The Geraldine Fibbers, bring them to life the way a flamethrower brightens up, oh, any social gathering where plenty of flammable frills are clustered together. Wake up time, you pretty things.

Oh yes. See them run for cover.

Whoever’s heard the previous Fibbers album, ‘Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home’, will have an idea of what to expect. Except that ‘Butch’ is to its predecessor what ‘Nevermind’ is to ‘Slippery When Wet’. Maybe it’s the recruitment of new guitarist Nels Cline, or maybe it’s just Carla finally diving full into the fray with both feet; but ‘Butch’ is a uninhibited maelstrom of ferocious guitars that lash like electrified hair, bass that booms like an iceberg smacking up the side of the Titanic, spasms of frenetic voodoo drumming and Jessy Greene’s violin flaying the skin off any ear that’s left unflattened.

Oh, and Carla’s voice. Emmylou Harris channeling Diamanda Galas doesn’t come halfway to this. As sharp and as powerful as a swung shoulderblade, as pointed as a knitting needle driven through the brain. The raw power of someone who’s lived through enough not to give a flying fuck about what anybody else thinks.

Of course in Fibberworld the fucks are probably flying. Like fists. Airborne, fast, rolling over; brutal, biting, clawing like rabid eagles. Sex permeates this album like river water in Ophelia’s bridegown, and while there’s a wild exhilaration to it, it’s never far from violence, meted out by Carla herself or by one of the other stark shadowy characters who ripple through her songs like sharks in a blood trail. There’s been nothing like this since that crack of psychic thunder that was the first Throwing Muses album twelve years ago. And if you’ve always missed that original, wantonly possessed Kristin Hersh since she mellowed into first a college rock icon and then an eldritch acoustic housewife, Carla beckons with a sharply bevelled fingernail and a mouthful of mercilessly shredded woman-words.

You think “Muses”, you think “X”; you think “Hole with talent instead of just posturing”; you think “early Velvets on nightmare acid, and with Nico convulsing out of that Teutonic cool for once.” And you also think country music, which soaks the fabric of “Butch” and ferments their Los Angeles punk hearts. But this is no joker’s cowpunk. It’s got black humour in spades, but the Fibbers’ brand of fucked-up country keeps the ravaged heartland heartstrings and sour juice intact.

Folks Like Me’s wooden, honky-tonk four-four has the inevitable slippery lap steel and plaintive weave of fiddle, the queasy bends of guitar and voice. But this is a tale of life off the highways, in the darkest and most twisted woods: Tammy Wynette via ‘Deliverance’ and ‘Angel Heart’. This time, the woman who can’t stand by her man comes of strange and sinister stock (“My heart wants to remain what I’ve become… / There’s no word for this where I come from”) and she knows that the idyll must end before her own blood catches up with her: “Your Lord knows I don’t want to leave here. / I’d like to stay in this little house and provide for you / and if I knew I’d only be risking my own life, / I’d stay until they came and struck me dead, / but I couldn’t stand to see them hurt a hair on your sweet head…”

Pet Angel gives us an American Gothic waltz with lyrics infested by wild wood romance and ‘Twins Peaks’ owls: “You cradle my body in sweetness and warmth, and a sweet wind blows through the trees… / The rain cracks the sky like tears of joy… makes mischief in her hair.” Love and death are inextricably combined (“You are my sunshine, I pull the drapes shut tight. / It’s curtains for you, goodbye. / The cat’s in the bag, the bag’s in the river, / the river makes me cry”), and out here, murder’s as natural as prayer: “To you, to you, straight up to you, / into your charitable hands/ Take care of him, Jesus, I know you’ll do what’s best / Lay his wicked soul to rest.”

Carla’s worldview is nightmarish, constantly under attack, with even the sun joining in with the warfare – on California Tuffy, she announces “a ball of light comes down / to bite me on the ass, the legs, the breasts / I’m falling from my nest.” And the answer is a swipe back with all the claws out, claiming “Yes I am just a tart, a heart on stilts. / Pick the flower and it will wilt, / to die in bliss, for a greedy lover’s kiss” before stinging back with a flail of electric noise and “you will never get my heart.” Toy Box is brutally, near unbearably graphic, a hall of distorting mirrors and wartime dispatches from the sex trade – “My shell on top of your knotty fist / with a speculum shoved up my cunt after hours… / For one lousy minute she felt like a queen. / I stand her naked at attention. Is this my only skill?”

Then there’s the metal hammering of I Killed the Cuckoo, as guitars screech, text goes through the mincer, fate and conflict body-slam in illegible shards. “The clock is dead for once and for all / until the next time I run in with you… / Lay me lower than I prayed for sweety heart… / In the end you crash into a milk truck. / I can see it in the tea leaves: you’re fucked.” In Arrow to My Drunken Eye there’s a flicker of incestuous horror in the warning “don’t be caught with your nightie mussed / and if you are questioned don’t tell them what we’ve discussed.”

Maybe it’s for respite from the rage, but scattered through ‘Butch’ are doorways to elsewhere as the band sink the odd claw into the avant-garde. There’s the drowned fairground ghosting of Heliotrope; or the venomous ambient murk enveloping Claudine’s New Orleans lurch, full of knuckly hideous life, like facehuggers trying to clamber out of a gumbo. And there’s a blood pulsing, amyl nitrate cover of Can’s You Doo Right – enough to scare the gloves off Holger Czukay and have aseptic contemporary Krautrock boys bricking it en masse.

However, it’s always Carla’s songs that snatch the attention; and rightly so. Here’s a reckless and merciless imagination at work, exploring the fragility of an ageing drag queen on the title track (“pushin’ thirty five under an answer blanket”) who’s “always a much prettier bird than any old girl bird… / Shades of light green, deep blue and just a touch of rouge / It’s funny how easy it is to lose / And all you’re left with is chaos and a dirty face.” Or diving into chaos with Seven or In 10 as she explodes around the body of a enemy lover, abandoning control and bringing down a foe with her: “I’ve gotta little trick for you. / I can split in two / or in seven / or in ten / little friends on whom I can depend… / We told you not to get inside our head or in our bed. / You wanna own this dish so you can eat it any time you wish… / Not so fast, fucker!”

But even as Carla delivers a full on primal punk scream of “you might think I hate you!”, she offers us no straight answers. Well, there aren’t any. Part of the impact of ‘Butch’ is that whatever Carla’s had to go through, she’s now so well adapted to it that you can’t imagine her living away from it. The world’s often built on chaos and violence; Carla’s found out more about that than most; and she’s now too much a part of it to ever escape. But if she’s ambiguously intertwined with the hand that beats, she’s also biting it ’til it bleeds.

Roll up the sunroof, mount rocket launchers on the beach buggy and hit Venice Beach with your anger clenched in your fist. Run down any fucker that gets in your way. It’s a sun ripped jungle out there, full of dangerous fruit. California dreaming will never be the same again.

The Geraldine Fibbers: ‘Butch’
Virgin Records America Inc., CDVUS 133 / 7243 8 44629 2 5 (724384462925)
CD-only album
1st July 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand or streamed.
The Geraldine Fibbers online:
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Additional notes: (2020 update) The Geraldine Fibbers split up after ‘Butch’. Carla Bozulich and Nels Cline went on to form Scarnella; more famously, Nels eventually joined Wilco. Carla now has a solo career as well as working with her band Evangelista.

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