August 11th, 1992, Babes In Toyland released their second studio album, Fontanelle, through Reprise Records. It was the band’s first album on a major label and first with new bassist Maureen Herman. Produced by frontwoman Kat Bjelland and Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, Fontanelle swings from feral, brain-shredding ferocity to heart-breaking melancholy. Named for the fragile soft spot on a newborn’s head, the album, by all accounts, had a difficult birth.
After the release of their debut album Spanking Machine in 1990 on legendary Minneapolis independent label Twin/Tone Records (home of The Replacements, Soul Asylum, The Jayhawks, Ween and more), Babes In Toyland signed with major label Reprise and set a date to record the follow-up. Then, just two months before recording began on Fontanelle, things began to unravel. Babes In Toyland’s bassist Michelle Leon had been dating Joe Cole, a roadie for Black Flag and best friend of Henry Rollins.
On December 19th, 1991, Cole and Rollins were returning home after attending a Hole concert in LA. After stopping at an all-night grocery store, two armed men approached them demanding money. Angry that Rollins and Cole had only $50 between them, the gunmen ordered the two men to go inside their house for more cash. Rollins entered at gunpoint. However, Cole was killed outside after being shot in the face at close range, while Rollins escaped out the back door and alerted the police. The murder remains unsolved.
Devastated, Leon could barely carry on, much less tour and perform night after night and decided to step away from music and the touring life. Though they were gutted by the idea of leaving Leon behind, Bjelland and drummer Lori Barbero were determined to keep the band going, turning to their old friend Maureen Herman to fill the bass position.
The band invited Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo to produce, “Kat and I had, I believe, a kind of intuitive understanding of what we were going for,” Ranaldo said, “based on our friendship and shared history at the time, having toured together. The plan was to capture as much energy as possible in a studio setting. The band planned to play mostly live in the studio and then add any overdubs and vocals. If Michelle had remained in the band, this would have gone as planned, as the demos had.”
With Leon’s departure those plans were scuppered. Maureen Herman’s last-minute arrival before recording meant they took a different approach. “We got good stuff, we just went about it differently,” Ranaldo says. “When I listen to the record, all that falls away, it sounds really good.” Having been ripped from her non-Rock’ N Roll life in Chicago, and given a last minute crash course in Babes In Toyland bass playing. Despite her nervousness, Herman worked hard.
Likewise, Lori Barbero’s unique and titanic tom-heavy tribal drum style proved challenging to track. After threats to have her play to a click track, she finally nailed most of her takes in one long day session when she was playing remarkably steady. The rest of the studio time was focused on Bjelland’s guitar and vocals, though she was somewhat distracted, having just fallen madly in love with Australian noise-rocker Stuart Spasm of Lubricated Goat.
Lee Ranaldo remembers his first encounters with the band: “They were super-exciting; both Kat lyrically and the band musically were knocking us out. We (Sonic Youth) took them on a lot of European and US tours with us; we became great friends in the late 1980s to early 1990s. Either Kat or Warner A&R executive Tim Carr suggested I could produce their major label debut,” he says, “and I was in love with what they were doing at the time, so we decamped to this studio in the sticks, an hour or so outside Minneapolis: Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minnesota.”
The album starts with “Bruise Violet,” Kat Bjelland’s howl of “You got this thing that really makes me hot” is backed by ominous pounding drums and rumbling bass. The spat-out chorus of “Liar, Liar, Liiiiiiiarrrrr,” with its spinning, careening melody, is gripping. The song is a public “fuck you” note to Bjelland’s on-again/off-again friend/competitor Courtney Love. Much ink was wasted on speculations of which woman first began wearing thrift shop baby doll dresses on stage (it was Bjelland), inspiring a look that the press tastelessly christened “kinderwhore.” Later, the two women claimed that the entire brouhaha was something they manufactured to generate press.
“Right Now” is a thrilling ride through dark, ominous verses and rhythmic, venom-filled choruses. Kat’s ability to transition from eerie, disembodied spoken word passages to larynx shredding intensity is awe-inspiring. “Bluebell” features Lori Barbero’s signature rolling tom work. On “Handsome & Gretel,” Bjelland cackles and catcalls while talk-singing about Gretel, who admits to a stupid, vapid Ken-doll Hansel that she’s a proud and total slut: “My name is Gretel, yeah / I’ve got a sloppy-ass slot.” Bjelland’s distinctive guitar work is full of engaging dissonance, complemented by the jittery rhythm section.
“Blood” rocks and pounds hard, Kat singing “Dear liver, down on your knees / I never wanted to be alone.” Despite being in the band for no time, Maureen Herman matches Bjelland and Barbero for intensity at every turn. “Magick Flute” is sung by Lori Barbero. The verses feel like something The Doors may have spat out had they been characters in a David Lynchian nightmare. The chorus explodes with bouncing, punk energy.
“Won’t Tell” is both violently abrasive and beautifully charming. Its shifts in dynamics are utterly compelling. “Quiet Room” is a deft, acoustic instrumental which serves as a respite from the sheer velocity of the rest of the album. “Short Song” is exactly that: a 42-second romp. “Jungle Train” is again propelled by Lori Barbero’s distinctive drumming style, with Kat talk-singing over some truly guttural moans, screams and grunts. It’s powerfully unhinged and frighteningly primal.
On “Mother”, Bjelland sings of familial strife, likely influenced by her own mother’s leaving her at a young age. “This is my life, Sister, come and take my life,” she demands, with resignation and enormous sadness. For the album’s final track, “Gone”, Bjelland saved up all the beer bottles the band had emptied during the recording process and smashed them one by one while screaming as she played guitar and sang solo over the sound of shattering glass.
Fontanelle burns with passion, vitriol and brutal energy. Its songs never lose sight of a great hook amongst the piranha feeding frenzy attack of guitar, drums, bass and vocals. It’s an album that reels you in for repeated listens and shows you new gorgeously chaotic layers every time.
Lee Ranaldo said, “I loved that Kat was such an emotional player on stage, and she was a really wild, and honest person. That had its good and bad points, dangerous points, and artistic, creative moments. When they were getting ready to make Fontanelle, they were in a place where they were firing on all cylinders. Their live shows were incredible, they had songs they were ready to record, and they were phenomenal.”
Lori Barbero’s drumming is a force, pounding on her toms with the butt-end of her sticks and, at times, almost ignoring her cymbals altogether; her propulsive, highly individual sound and style drove Babes In Toyland. She’s one of the most exciting drummers from the independent rock scene of the ’90s. Maureen Herman’s bass lines were strong and melodic; despite being thrown in at the deep end, she delivered with passion and intensity.
Above the pounding instrumental din of Fontanelle, a magma of raw emotion spewed from Kat Bjelland’s baby-doll face with shocking force. Retching her enraged lyrics onto tape, her screams skid across the beat and collide with her blunt riffs. Her voice erupts into laughs and gargles, then croons down low with eerie detachment. Kat’s incredible presence became the band’s focal point right from the start. “We’re not a girl band, you fucker,” she told a male reporter in 1992. “We’re just a band. Don’t you know the fucking difference?” The truth is, Babes In Toyland was never “just a band”. They were a force of nature.