On a creative level, Luscious Jackson had a hard time following up "In Search of Manny," the 1993 EP that introduced the female group's blend of rough-around-the-edges hip hop and ultra-cool funk. The New York quartet's first full-length album, "Natural Ingredients," was a jumble of musical ideas that allowed for flashes of greatness and numerous missteps. "Fever In, Fever Out," the follow-up collaboration with producer Daniel Lanois, initiated a musical metamorphosis, turning the folk-rock hip-hop chicks into genuine pop craftswomen. On the band's new "Electric Honey," the transformation is complete.
It's not easy to hear at first. It took me a month to realize that Luscious Jackson didn't lose their edge. Instead, their musical sensibility has shifted so considerably that you almost have to consider them a new band.
"Electric Honey" is the chill-out album of the summer, a rebirth for the three remaining members of the band that allows for only glimmering memories of Luscious Jackson's previous life. (Keyboardist Vivian Trimble left the group last year.) On tracks like "Gypsy," guitarist Gabby Glaser's hushed baritone vocal raps glide across a rhythm track that blends beautifully with bassist Jill Cuniff's more melodic voice. Then, on the disc's first single, "Ladyfingers," Emmylou Harris complements Cuniff's bouncing vocal track -- "If you need me to be sweet/I can give you what you need" -- in a mix so smooth that you can hardly separate the two voices in harmony. Drummer Kate Shellenbach maintains the breakbeats of the group's older songs, while pushing tracks like "Christine" toward living, breathing drum 'n' bass rhythms.
Executive produced by the group (with help from a bevy of musical colleagues), "Electric Honey" features a number of strong female guests besides Harris. Former Luscious idol Deborah Harry sings on the Blondie-esque "Fantastic Fabulous," and Petra Haden and Josephine Wiggs lay down violin and cello on the trippy "Space Diva." And New York Liberty player Kym Hampton backs up the vocals on "Friends," one of the album's only sappy throwaways.
The members of Luscious Jackson all turned 30 over the past couple of years, and there's no question their music has grown up as well. Hopefully their fans can appreciate the shift. Yeah, the kids still wanna rock. But for many lapsed punks, ex-B-boys and former fly girls, "Electric Honey" is going to be just the record they've been waiting to hear.