2 · 7 February 95
Mecca Normal: Sitting on Snaps
If you're aware of rock music at all these days, you're probably pretty familiar with "punk". Green Day, Offsping, Nirvana, Soul Asylum, Bad Religion and a host of other "punk" bands are selling millions of records, and the odds are decent that some of them are in your house. The thing is, though, that all of these bands are actually pretty easy to listen to. Punk can get a little abrasive in timbre, but the songs are catchy enough. Those of you old enough to remember the first time punk came around might recall that punk used to be something that would scare people, even rock fans, even lots of kids. Either we've all stayed really hip and open-minded as we've aged, or else this wave of "punk" is missing something that the first one had.
The absent ingredient, I think, is the element of surprise. When the Sex Pistols, the Jam, the Clash and the Buzzcocks were new, the idea of playing songs much faster than you were technically capable of, with distortion cranked up to cover the mistakes, was an unexpected twist. Drunken welfare rejects yelling obscenities at the barely-tonal extremes of their vocal cords' abilities was considered somewhat threatening and unconventional. The very idea that being in a band and playing music didn't require technical musical virtuosity ran counter to a prominent Emersonian (Keith, not Ralph W.) vein in the music industry, and a lot of very interesting things happened very quickly in the breach opened up by the first few interlopers.
There then ensued about seventeen years of musical dispersal, in the process of which punk either died or got transformed, depending on who you talk to, and a whole lot of other things came and went with similarly short-lived gusto. The result, though, was that while the defining characteristics of 1978 punk didn't disappear from the music-making world, they became so accepted that they ceased to provoke anything like the same reaction they once did. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise; play Rites of Spring for somebody today and they're liable to shrug and say "Sounds like 'Classical Music', so what?" Everything gets assimilated, and in a way the remarkable thing is how long it took to turn cutting-edge punk into K-Mart-ready pop.
But if this has led you to the complacent assumption that you're in touch with the punk underground, you've forgotten some important cultural lessons. The original spirit of punk, the same instinct that drove Stravinsky and Johnny Rotten, the urge to foil the listener's expectations and defy the implicit rules of the medium's mainstream, has merely left behind its circa-Never Mind the Bollocks expression, and continued on undaunted. Check back in 1995, and just as was the case in the early days, you have to do some digging to uncover the interesting bits.
Mecca Normal is one of my personal nominations for a very short list of the best operating punk bands (with only Fugazi for serious company). Sitting on Snaps is their fifth CD that I know of, and its appearance on indie titan Matador Records gives them their highest profile to date, and probably substantially better distribution than their prior efforts enjoyed. Existing Mecca Normal fans will be pleased to find that they haven't swerved from their appointed course at all, though I don't know why anybody would expect them to.
To locate Mecca Normal on the axis of style, try this: Find ELP, over towards the big-budget, complex-arrangement, classical-heritage, synthesizer-pomp end of the spectrum (not a bad neighborhood in its own right, mind you). Now measure over towards simplicity until you get to the Sex Pistols. Hold your hands that far apart, and move over until the trailing one rests on Green Day. The leading one, an ELP-Rotten gap's distance further into stripped-down minimalism, will be hovering in the vicinity of Mecca Normal.
The band, such as it is, is two people, David Lester and Jean Smith. David produces guitar noises, and Jean produces vocal noises. Very occasionally, Jean will also pick up a guitar. On this album guests contribute a little piano to two songs, and an extra acoustic guitar to one of them. That's it. David doesn't sing, there's no bass, there are no drums, no synthesizers. Who needs them? Jean does frequently double-track her voice, but this is done less for harmony in the normal sense than for a disconcerting near-unison effect that sounds like two slightly out-of-tune strings beating against each other.
Listeners searching for something accessible to hook into may initially be foiled pretty thoroughly. There are occasional moments that sound a little like rock music, but there's a lot of weird terrain around them that decidedly doesn't. The first time I heard Mecca Normal, buying an album after reading an article about them somewhere (I wouldn't hold your breath waiting to hear them on the radio or see them on MTV, so this will probably be your route, too, if you choose to take it), about all I had to say was "Well, this is unpleasant". I said it with a glimmer of wide-eyed interest, though, because it was unpleasant in a way I hadn't encountered before. It took some time and energy to get past resistance, but one day I finally got my mind oriented at the proper angle to the music, and something snapped into place. Suddenly I found myself back at the CD store buying the other Mecca Normal records, and shortly after that I realized that David Lester may be my first genuine guitar hero.
The thing about Lester's playing, I've decided after a good deal of theories that quickly came to seem stupid, is that he plays guitar. I know, you're looking puzzled. What I mean is, most guitar players are actually musicians first, and guitar players only as a means to an end. When Eric Clapton plays, he is effectively looking past and through the guitar itself, to the music beyond. The guitar is a tool for producing notes and nuances and chords and sounds, but it's only a tool. Even legendary "innovators" like Jimi Hendrix, at least to me, are really not pushing the boundaries of the guitar's potential at all. Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner" is provocative as music, but compared to the scope of noises that can actually be wrung out of an electric guitar, it's pretty conventional. In this sense, then, Lester's playing is aware of the actual instrument to a greater degree than anybody else's that I know of. His guitar emits squawks, screeches, buzzes, rattles, discord, melody, drive, chaos and a dozen other sounds that it's usually the producer's job to filter out on the way to the finished production. Listening to him led me to the epiphany that a guitar can be more than an alternative to the piano keyboard for producing the same kinds of music. You can't make Mecca Normal's noises any other way than with an electric guitar. You might not want to, of course, but that's not their problem.
The combination of Lester's guitar and Jean's pinched, sometimes-grating singing makes for music that, try as you might (or might not), you might never get used to. And I don't think I could really say whether this album of it is any better an introduction to it than any of their other ones. But it's new, and if you get it you'll not only be hip, you'll be current.
Huggy Bear: Weaponry Listens to Love
Then again, perhaps you prefer your punk to be performed with bass, drums, and the normal trappings of a band. And perhaps you're pining because it's been a while since the last Fugazi album. If so, I suggest Huggy Bear as an interim measure. I bought this album on the grounds that I'd heard of Huggy Bear, but hadn't the slightest idea what they sounded like, and that the title struck me as extremely cool.
What they sound like is, well, Fugazi more than anything else. But, in case you haven't heard Fugazi (or in case you have), I ought to elaborate.
Like Mecca Normal, Huggy Bear strip a number of layers off of rock music that you might have previously thought were connected to vital organ-systems. Their music is frequently bristling, angry, profane, literate, discordant, deliberately arrhythmic, ugly, berserk, claustrophobic and monumental. The album credits list only pseudonyms, so I can't tell you anything much about the group's make up, but there are apparently four people (it sounds like there are both male and female voices singing, so my assumption is that the group is of mixed gender). The drums clatter spasmodically. The guitars howl with strings combined in ways that the ones on my guitar just don't. The singers scream lines in desperate monotones. You couldn't even start to do sheet music for this stuff. There's no key for it, no time signature, no staff for the vocals to be plotted on. Actually, I expect that a truly dedicated expert scribe could probably execute a technically accurate score for this album, but you'd still never be able to reconstruct the music from it.
And that would be a shame. On the basis of this one album I can't be completely sure whether Huggy Bear have the same rigorous internal discipline that Fugazi have, the adherence to musical principles that gives a music that sounds, on first listen, cacophonous, as much underlying structure as anything conventional. If I had to guess from this much evidence, though, I'd be inclined to give them credit. There are profoundly disturbing moments both in the music and the lyrics (like: "Everybody has a brother outside / Everybody has a sister outside / Says your date has pulled up in the drive / And guess what? They're looking pissed off / (What's keeping them alive?)"), and a crazed non-lyric rant on the last two pages of the liner that breaks off abruptly when the page ends (with the intriguing epigram "An inauthentic appetite is serviced by an inauthentic diet"). All these things simmer with intent, and I prefer to believe that they'd have been hard to come by haphazardly.
Your parents won't like it. Your friends probably won't like it. What about you?
Blake Babies: Nicely, Nicely
After a harrowing journey through Mecca Normal and Huggy Bear, you may be very relieved to get to the Blake Babies, the band that Juliana Hatfield was in before her profitable solo career. Nicely, Nicely is actually the Blake Babies' first album, originally released on vinyl in 1987 on Chewbud Records, where it probably saw a print run that could fit in the back of a beat-up Gremlin, which the band themselves used to pick up the boxes of copies from the plant. Mammoth, Juliana's current label, has done a great favor to people who weren't actually close personal friends of the band at the time, then, by re-releasing the album on CD. Presumably they have financial motives, but perhaps not, and why be uncharitable?
People investigating the Blake Babies as a reverse-historical extension of Juliana's career, from having been exposed to her first in her small solo success, should not start with this. The clanging ultra-low-budget pop here is a few removes from her waifish, delicate solo work. In fact, it's about four removes, that being the number of Blake Babies disks there are. The progression from record to record is admirably steady, which means that if you start with her last album and work backwards, you'll pretty much know what you're getting into as you go. By the time you get back this far, what you're getting into is less than twenty-four minutes of primitive songwriting highlighted by Juliana's fragile, wavering voice. Two of these songs were recorded live at Harvard somewhere, possibly at a show I was actually at, in a dining hall one weekend night, with an audience of something like ten people. The other songs are studio work, but not much slicker than the live ones.
For me, the unschooled uncertainty of Juliana's voice was the soul of the Blake Babies, and as a result she lost me as she matured. I'd liked each Blake Babies record less than the prior one, so I had reason to expect that this one might be my favorite. This doesn't quite pan out. There are some priceless tracks, most notably the Go-Go's-ish live song "Bye" and a melancholy rendition (with Evan Dando of the Lemonheads singing the duet part) of a song here called "Better 'n You" that would show up in a more developed form on Earwig as "Rain". And even a potentially goofy song like "Let Them Eat Chewy Granola Bars" turns out to have its likable moments. But "Julius Fast Body" and "Swill and the Cocaine Sluts" fall flat, and the brevity of this set lessens the impression it makes on me, as well, and in the end I regard this as basically a pre-coda attached to Earwig, which will always seem to me like the Blake Babies' real first album. Fans will want it, naturally, but newcomers would be better off starting with Earwig, Sunburn, or perhaps the best-of album that came out some time last year.
Mary Lou Lord: Mary Lou Lord
Juliana Hatfield is an obvious point of comparison for fellow low-key aspirant Mary Lou Lord, and in fact Juliana shows up singing backing vocals on "Lights Are Changing", the one song here done with a full band. The album's other seven songs are just Mary Lou and her guitar, and calling her Juliana's folk avatar gives about the right impression. She has a small, but charming, voice, and a nice sense for a simple song, delivered with an appealing substitution of sincerity for polish.
Her busking roots show not only in her style and arrangements, but in her choice of material. Three of these songs are her own; the rest are covers. Two, including "Lights Are Changing", are by The Bevis Frond, a band that some of my friends in college really liked (but about which I can't tell you much else other than that they've remained stubbornly obscure despite my friends). "That Kind of Girl" was written by Matt Keating, though I don't find it on either of his albums, so perhaps he wrote it for Mary Lou. "I'm Talking to You" is by Jimmy Bruno (beats me), and "Speeding Motorcycle" is by Daniel Johnston.
What commuters made of this stuff as they rushed past, I don't know, but it sounds pretty here at home. As sources go, the Bevis Frond songs sound the most assured. Mary's own material seems uneven to me: I like "Helsinki", but the convoluted in-scene references of "His Indie World" feel forced, and "The Bridge" sounds just a little too much like her attempt to be Joni Mitchell. I'm sure I like this version of Johnston's "Speeding Motorcycle" more than I'd like his own, as his weird delivery bothers me. Bruno's "I'm Talking to You" I could do without, and this bare version of Keating's song puts more weight on Matt's lyrics than I feel they can bear (which is actually the same complaint I have about his own work, as well, so at least I'm consistent, or he is).
This album is in an odd position in the industry. Lord's label, Kill Rock Stars, is the pride of the indie underground, and her immersion in that culture is evident (as much as she claims otherwise in "His Indie World"), but stylistically she's pretty plainly a folkie. Whether the sort of people who buy Guided by Voices albums will go for this, or whether Christine Lavin fans will even encounter it, or empathize with the punk spirit that the folk exterior embodies, I couldn't say. Crossing the cultural barriers in between the two audiences may require a more potent crossover than this, even if it could comfortably inhabit a small niche on either side given a chance.
(To tie this all together, for closure fans, not only does Juliana Hatfield appear here, but Mary Lou had a song on a compilation called Stars Kill Rock a couple years ago, which was a sequel to another compilation called Kill Rock Stars, which had a song by Mecca Normal. And in "His Indie World" she mentions Huggy Bear. If she only mentioned me, we'd really have something.)