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Family matters
Mecca Normalís poetic pop

As I watched Mecca Normal perform for a modest but appreciative crowd last month in Los Angeles, an unexpected comparison popped to mind: the Smiths. On the face of it, that might seem crazy. What could a Vancouver-based "anarchist folk-punk duo" who face down audiences with nothing but David Lesterís Gibson guitar and Jean Smithís voice share with Manchesterís feyest sons?

Itís certainly not a matter of influence. Asked post-performance about the connection, the affable Lester said, "I think one other person has said that. I like a few of their songs, but I donít see it." And Smithís lyrics, fueled by feminist anger and realized in vividly personal terms, are worlds away from Morrisseyís trademark self-pity (though not his self-awareness). But after a few spins of the duoís new The Family Swan (their first for the Olympia indie Kill Rock Stars), the comparison grows curiously apt. Strip away a dozen layers of guitar texture (not to mention a rhythm section), pour in a well-shaken bottle of radical politics, and whatís special about Smith & Lesterís 17-year collaboration starts to resemble what was special about Morrissey & Johnny Marrís briefer, now defunct one.

Jean Smith, like Morrissey, is less a lyricist who squeezes words into a given musical framework than simply a writer with no special interest in matching the length of successive lines, or rhyming on cue. (Sheís also penned three small-press "novels" that stretch the genre to the breaking point.) An example, from the prosy "Ice Floes Aweigh": "What Iíd really like to know is, whyíd you throw that huge glass of chocolate milk at me when I said I was moving out, at 17?" "Louie Louie," this isnít. (Also, Smith and Morrissey both have unmistakable vocal timbres ó though Smithís is a pinched, alien wail delivered through pursed lips, not a Mancunian moan.)

Lester, meanwhile, is the pairís Johnny Marr ó a versatile, thoughtful guitarist with an impressionistic take on the rock lexicon. On The Family Swan, which was produced with no-overdub starkness by Swearing by Motoristsí Dave Doughman, he toys with crushing distortion ("Every Wrong Word") and airy billows of improv noise ("In January"). But listen past the vocals and the lyrics and youíll find that the most satisfying tracks are underpinned by his knack for pop syntax and circular chord progressions.

Think of the way brand-new lyrics and melodies suddenly appear where the final chorus should be in key Smiths songs like "Is It Really So Strange?" and "How Soon Is Now?" Then listen to how the dissection of a bland folksinger in "Revolution on Pine" ("He doesnít want to say much about feminism or activism/Maybe because these words donít fit neatly into songs") is stretched over Lesterís four-chord pattern. Itís the same idea: the songís drama ó and what makes it a song rather than a rant ó is a result of the tension between what the singer needs to say and the space the music gives her to say it.

Of course, just what Mecca Normal, who come to the Lucy Parsons Center this Sunday, dramatize is another story. The Family Swan is a concept album of sorts, about, well, family. And itís no surprise that Smith doesnít view the institution uncritically. The catchy "What About the Boy?" follows a precocious child from adoption ("What about the boy in the blue pajamas") to his new parentsí denial of his homosexuality ("The boyís fine/Itís the ladybugs weíre going to have to worry about") to trouble at school ("Send the boy to the office"). Lester uses the output from a delay pedal to create his own ska-band-style rhythmic backing, an effect he has no trouble reproducing live.

Smith explores other internal family conflicts. The eight-minute title track finds father and daughter at each otherís throats. "No Mindís Eye" is her sardonic and suspicious examination of a fatherís professed lack of visual imagination.

Like 1997ís narrative-driven, largely acoustic Who Shot Elvis? (Matador), their previous album, The Family Swan is richer and more engaging than the agitpop that made the band an early influence on any number of riot grrrls. Mecca Normalís questioning spirit and on-stage forcefulness remain unchanged, but as theyíve grown older, theyíve become much wiser when it comes to hooks.

Mecca Normal perform this Sunday, November 3, at the Lucy Parsons Center, 549 Columbus Avenue. Call (617) 267-6272.

Issue Date: October 31 - November 7, 2002
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