Hungry for Stink has perhaps one of the greatest opening tracks of all-time, ‘Andres.’ Beginning with a familiar fuzzy guitar bass and pounding drums, courtesy of Suzi Gardner, Jennifer Finch and Demetra Plakas, respectively, Donita Sparks’ guitar skips and bounces into the track like a record being scratched, before Gardner takes the vocals, about Andres, a guy in North Hollywood who has long hair, he’s a nice guy, but L7 have had problems with him and now, they are apologizing. I remember the very first time I heard this track. I had just scooped the new L7 from A&B Sound the day before, down on Seymour Street, the formerly legendary Record Row of Vancouver. It was a sunny day, a rarity in Vancouver. It was summer, I was rocking Chuck Taylors and a flannel shirt, undone. I was wearing a Stüssy t-shirt underneath. Life was good. I was on the #17 Oak St. bus, heading down Oak St. towards Broadway, where I was going to hop the #9 Broadway bus and head out to the University of British Columbia, where I had some business before my final year of undergrad. I turned on my discman, had my headphones set, and holy mother of god, that song hit me hard. It also had a kick ass video.
L7 were perhaps the hardest hitting of the so-called Riot Grrrrl era, from Los Angeles, but often scooped into the grunge scene because of their sound, chugging guitars and bass, distorted guitar leads. And all three women had sandpaper voices, full of anger, righteousness, and, also vulnerability, especially on songs about their experiences with creepy men, being followed around, and worse. I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know from L7, about the sheer vulnerability women feel, but they did allow me to put words to it.
A few months before this album came out, I was in the old Stacks Library at UBC, down in the basement, where I liked to write my papers (this was the pre-computer era, kids) in silence because there was never anyone around. Except one time, when I was heading to my usual study carrel in the stankiest part of the basement. The lights barely worked and in some places in this corner, the dust was 3 inches thick. And then I heard these strange noises, muffled. I was alarmed, and went in the direction of the noises. And there was some asshole raping a woman. He ran away, pulling up his pants when I arrived, I stayed with her, she got dressed, I helped her up, and I steadied her as she went upstairs to report this. The police arrived. I never actually saw her again.
So when I heard ‘Can I Run’, track three of Hungry for Stink, I actually had to stop, it was a punch in the gut. Listening to Sparks sing:
Are these sensible shoes on my feet
I wear my shades so our eyes don’t meet
I’m scared every fuckin’ day
I wear my headphones so i can’t hear what you say
Can I run
Switch to paranoid from having fun
Will he use his hands, knife, or a gun
Knuckles are white, wrapped around my mace
Comes from living in a terrorist state.
I really realized that the woman being raped in the library wasn’t unusual, it wasn’t uncommon, it was an everyday experience. And if it wasn’t outright rape, women were subject to all this shit all the time in all places. Like I said, I knew this already, but I didn’t have the words to put it together until I heard Sparks sing ‘I’m scared every fuckin’ day’ hit. Like somehow I thought bad ass women didn’t have these fears. I don’t know why it took me this long to put it altogether, I should’ve known from other Riot Grrrl bands (Bikini Kill, in particularly), Women’s Studies classes, feminist History, to say nothing of the experience of my girlfriends and female friends. But I guess sometimes it takes a kick in the gut to put it altogether.
In ‘Questioning My Sanity,’ Sparks takes us deep into a depression, about as far into depression as I had ever been, as she notes, graphically, that she’s saving her piss in a jar, that she’s been wearing the same clothes for weeks, her ass is sore from lying in bed, and she can’t really tell if she’s alive or dead.
‘Stuck Here Again’ might be the exceptional song on this album, in that it’s almost a slow burner, if L7 could do a slow burner. This time it’s Gardner who’s depressed:
I’m good at feeling bad
I’m even better at feeling worse
Some would say life is a charm
I’m convinced it is a curse
The music seethes under her vocals, never quite exploding like on the other songs on the album. But that is perhaps in keeping with Gardner’s vocal content.
‘Fuel My Fire’ then kicks us back into overdrive, with feedback kicking off over Plakas’ furious drums and then Sparks takes over and notes all the shit that pisses her off and how people annoy her, fuelling her fire. The Prodigy covered this on their 1997 opus Fat of the Land (RIP Keith Flint).
‘Shirley’ is not just one of the best tracks on the album, it’s an homage to Shirley Muldowney, the first woman drag car racer. I remembered seeing a movie about her on TV in the early 80s, and L7 sample the movie all throughout the song as Finch recounts the story and hits hard with the chorus: ‘How many times must you be told/There’s nowhere we don’t go’ And if ‘Can I Run’ was a kick in the gut for me, ‘Shirley’ was one of those moments of ‘ugh.’ It was 1994 and we were still having this discussion about what women could and couldn’t do. Oh, how naive I was. 😉
The entirety of Hungry for Stink is full of fury, it’s fast and nasty. Sparks, Gardner, and Finch brought their A games in terms of their songs for the album. But the production of the album really set it apart from the rest of L7’s oeuvre. On this one, at the height of the grunge era in 1994, L7 worked with GGGarth Richardson (who was also from Vancouver) and the results were masterful. The music is this constant throbbing chug of guitars/bass/drums, with Sparks and and Gardner’s guitars occasionally spinning off into distorted solos. All three of the vocalists infuse their songs with their fury.
This was kind of it for L7, though. Finch left in 1996 as they were recoding their follow up, Triple Platinum: The Beauty Process. That album kind of fell flat on its face. Slap Happy, their next album, well, the less said the better, and L7 faded away by 2001. It seemed a horrible fate for a band of such blistering fury. But, they reformed in 2014, and following a couple of viciously excellent comeback singles, ‘I Came Back to Bitch’ and ‘Dispatch from Mar-a-Lago’ in 2017 and 2018, they released their most recent album, Scatter the Rats last spring.
Matthew Barlow is a recovering academic. A Montrealer by birth, he has lived all over Canada and the United States. His natural affinities are with his hometown of Montreal, Vancouver, and his current home in rural Western Massachusetts. His first book, Griffintown: Identity & Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood (he did not come up with that subtitle) was published in June 2017 by UBC Press. He is currently working on a new book that examines childhood, memory, and trauma. His real passion, though, is music. He is also an avid fan of the Montreal Canadiens and Liverpool FC. When not screaming at the TV, he can be found running, playing with his dogs, or hiking through the hills of Western Mass.