Cardboard Box House of Love 7″ (K Records, 1990) art by Jean Smith
Comments on Mecca Normal albums on RATE YOUR MUSIC website:
Dovetail (K Records, 1992)
“It’s disgraceful that this record only has 23 ratings–not even enough to chart it here at RYM. One of the greatest records of the late 80s/early 90s K-Records scene … before “indie” existed properly, in the immediate wake of the Nirvana hype. This album–probably the band’s best–mixes rhythmically-driven (all from the guitar) pieces that have a punk-rock edge with ballad-like, slow pieces. It’s remarkable in its balancing of these modes (sometimes within a single song). Beautiful stuff. Search it out. Now!” – denti, 2012
“The perfect Mecca Normal album. Throw Silver and Clatter make the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. This band is largely ignored by most supposed “indie” listeners and they’ve been doing for almost thirty years. Consistent as hell and never boring. This record is solid gold.” mortytoad, 2009
Water Cuts My Hands (K Records, 1991)
“David Lester is one of the unsung greatest guitarists. He is incredibly inventive with the little he plays (a few chords, no solos) and makes his guitar sound so raw and real and right there with you. I love it. This record is fantastic, though not consistently so. Still one of the best places to start with this great band. The CD comes with the 1988 record “Calico Kills the Cat,” also worth repeated listens. “Taking the Back Stairs,” “Dead Bird’s Feet” and “Lois Wrote About the Farm” are among the band’s best.” – denti, 2011
Sitting on Snaps (Matador, 1995)
“The beginning and end of this album are brilliant. Like Concrete Blonde meets Lush with a sprinkling of Siouxsie, but also no drums, like, on any song ever. Yes, this is a drumless band. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes not… just layers of guitar and voice, but not too many layers. There’s some minimalism going on here too.” – Sukwtto, 2011
Sex Stains’ Allison Wolfe (formerly of Riot Grrrl band Bratmobile) describes moving from Olympia to DC in the 90s in a new Pitchfork feature on music that has mattered to her.
“I brought all my records over, including this one 7″ by Mecca Normal, this band from Vancouver that was very influential in the Olympia music scene. “Strong White Male” was an anthem of mine. I would play it all the time because all of a sudden I was surrounded by a lot of strong white males who were too entitled, who had grown up with a lot more money than a lot of the Olympia girls. It talks about that privilege that’s invisible to the people who possess it but painfully obvious to the people who don’t.” – Allison Wolfe
Video by David Lester
Nearly 10 years after its release, the Chesapeake Public Library in Virginia has reviewed Mecca Normal’s album “The Observer” in great depth.
Forget everything you know about Mecca Normal.
Wait, no, don’t panic. All is not lost, and in fact many of the oak-like constants remain. The Vancouver-based duo of vocalist Jean Smith and guitarist David Lester, a sapling (with tree rings counting all the way back to 1981) in what later blossomed into the Riot Grrrl movement, is very much present and accounted for. Novelist Jean continues to draw subject matter from her writing, and the lyrics to her songs read, as they always have, like flowing, stream-of-consciousness stories. Jean’s unique vocals, residing somewhere in that same ethereal ZIP code as PJ Harvey and Joanna Newsom, have not filled out a change-of-address card, and David’s virtuoso guitar playing, veering from angry to angular, has not dulled its edge against the ever-forward grind and march of time.
No, the sharp, commanding sound these two have been making together for decades has not left the building.
With their album The Observer, however, Mecca Normal takes us down a thematic rabbit hole as they tackle something not normally associated with their own work, or even with punk in general: the concept album. And even amongst concept albums, this is an odd one, as Jean delves into and delivers back to us the strange and sordid world of online dating. “Say again?” If you just cringed at the thought, if it somehow sounds gimmicky and topical or just plain awful, that would be a perfectly understandable reaction. And yes, in lesser hands this could be a disaster, but Mecca Normal are no mere mortals. Despite the unsavoriness and overall rotten-fish smell of the subject matter, Jean does indeed deliver, and The Observer does indeed rock.
No holds barred and in medias res, the band dive right into the thick of things with the first song, “I’m Not Into Being the Woman You’re With While You’re Looking for the Woman You Want.” Surprisingly poppy and concise despite its unwieldy title, its name also aptly sums up its theme. The song is a tale of a woman trying to diplomatically back out of a lousy relationship (“I need to figure out how to get his CD’s back to him…”) where the man she’s with not only constantly compares her unfavorably to past loves, but openly searches for someone supposedly better. Of course this is hardly a new phenomenon, but one of the unintended “benefits” of this golden electronic age has been the increasing ease with which one can play the field, and the unparalleled ability to keep one’s options open.
Another glitch in electronic dating is explored in the next song, “Attraction is Ephemeral,” where two people who are quite plainly wrong for each other try to make things work despite their obvious differences. “We connected right from the start. You can’t make this happen, you can’t make this happen … can you?,” Jean questions, subtly mocking the engineered, inorganic method by which this pairing happened in the first place. As Jean goes on to describe her wardrobe, a “slutty” fifteen-dollar outfit including one-dollar panties and a Value Village bra, her significant other, seemingly out of touch with the contradictions set out before him, explains that he prefers a woman who adorns herself with jewelry, good shoes and other fineries. He rattles off his professional accomplishments (“he’s the architect of a hospital, a hotel, a prison in Texas”) and fills the air with empty promises of bringing his grand piano out of storage while Jean describes how she walks 20 minutes to the grocery and would cross the street to save ten cents a pound on oranges. We can only envision how this will end, as Jean trails off pondering the genuineness of this gentleman’s words and about his being an architect, “the architect of another line, a really long line…”
The pinnacle of the The Observer, and perhaps its most difficult moment, is found in the song “Fallen Skier.” Here, again courtesy of narrator Jean, we get a bird’s eye view of a first date gone horribly wrong, or at least horribly not right. “I picked the date, I picked the place for the date, a radical bookstore to which he, a 47-year-old English student, has never been…” At one time or another, we’ve probably all found ourselves sitting across a table from a mistake, an error in judgment, and staring down an utter lack of chemistry. And yet – out of curiosity, politeness or just the sheer hope that we haven’t dug deep enough – we somehow keep the conversation going. Jean finds herself in such a moment of ennui here, and she is awed by the enormity of this man’s vapid existence. He shows no interest at all, not just in her, but in anything. As painful as this sounds, there are comic moments, like when her date frets over whether Jean’s being in a punk band might mean she’s akin to Henry Rollins, and also moments of pure poignancy:
“I ask what sort of music he listens to. He says his taste is ‘eclectic,’ my least favorite answer to a question meant to increase understanding.
‘Eclectic,’ in this case, means that music isn’t really that important to him, isn’t really that important to him…”
Some may complain that, at twelve minutes plus, this painful exorcism carries on for far too long. The flip side, however, is that by stretching this moment, by fleshing out each lifeless detail and thoroughly examining this hollow, would-be suitor, the listener becomes a part of the story and feels the same tedium and awkwardness that Jean did in going through the ordeal. Life, or love for that matter, isn’t all about butterflies and fireworks, and as a slice of realism this piece is outstanding.
In the album’s final moments, its self-titled track quietly ties up all the loose ends of the online dating conundrum and of the search for meaningful connections of any stripe. Jean, the observer, finds herself riding a bus. Different people get on and off the bus as she rides. She hears parts of conversations, sees different landscapes outside her window and momentarily catches glimpses of beauty and meaning. “I close one eye to lose my depth of field, I am so limited, so limited the infinite unravel of the universe.” As the ride draws to a close, everyone has gotten off the bus except Jean. With everything stripped away, in the end she finds herself as the one constant, as are we all. Each of us, individually, are observers, and ultimately, no matter who we reach out to in our lifetimes, no matter who we connect with or who falls away, in truth we have only our own selves to fall back on, and we each will die alone.
– manwithnoname, Chesapeake Public Library (Chesapeake, Virginia), April 3, 2015
“Naked and Ticklish” is an excerpt from Jean Smith’s novel “Obliterating History – a guitar-making mystery, domination and submission in a small town garage” (literary fiction)
From the new Mecca Normal album “Empathy for the Evil” on M’lady’s Records
Jean Smith and David Lester have been making music together for thirty years as Mecca Normal, they’ve released thirteen albums on a variety of labels, and with Empathy for the Evil they have certainly remained flavorful and fresh.
There’s no real question about quality here, though their 2006 album Observer is eight years old it was proof that they were still going strong, writing and performing interesting and provocative music. Traditional has never been a word that anyone would use to describe the music of Mecca Normal, from the very beginning it was just Jean and David, a voice, and a guitar. There has rarely if ever been a rhythm section, the busiest you’re likely ever to hear their music is the inclusion of a saxophone or some gnarly guitar overdubs. It’s Smith’s voice that has always been the flash and flare, one of the most recognizable voices around it does hand-stands and cartwheels, it back-flips and does handsprings, it’s also totally capable of walking in a simple straight line one foot in front of the next. She can lay out these gorgeous melodies, and in the next breath blast you with poetry slam phrase/phrases.
Often it feels as if the band is getting away with something, things most other bands could never get away with. Take the album’s first song Art Was The Great Leveler, you’re immediately cut by Lester’s slashing guitar, possibly the slight hind of bass, and then Smith’s prose without real melodic inflection at least until you get to the gut punch of “art was the great leveler.” This song, as with all the lyrics on Empathy for the Evil, come straight from Smith’s recent and unpublished novels, it’s a formula that works so well on this album that it forces you to pay attention to what is happening and not what is missing. In fact, the way that Smith and Lester mix their styles together is particular admirable, regardless of the vocal style Smith employs, Lester’s guitar slashes or slow burns, they compliment one another beautifully.
The first time I ever remember hearing Mecca Normal was Narrow on the first Kill Rock Stars compilation, it stands out as one of the stranger songs on the comp, and unlike anything I’d ever really heard before, yet it’s also one of the most appealing, you just don’t know where it’s going to go. This is a trait shared among all the songs on Empathy for the Evil, it’s shrouded in mystery, impossible to predict any trajectory. The album dabbles is various tempo’s, a chasm of emotions, and gnarly and twisted expectations, by the time I came all the way to the end with Odele’s Bath, I felt nostalgic, optimistic, and highly satisfied. It’s not really important that Mecca Normal has hung around for thirty years, what is important is that they’ve weathered the constant assaults on a disabled industry, and the destructive powers of time, which can eat away at your passion and your partnership. You put on Empathy for the Evil, and it’s like your listening to Mecca Normal at the hight of the Riot Grrrl movement, when the Northwest was the center of the music world, when people appreciated the ingenuity and the artistry of artists like Jean Smith and David Lester. The question really isn’t did this wine go bad? It’s just how good did this wine get? Which in this case is delicious.
The new Mecca Normal album Empathy for the Evil will be released on M’lady’s Records in September, 2014.
Jean Smith vocals, David Lester acoustic guitar, KRAMER on bass and keys. Produced and mixed by KRAMER. Recorded by Rat Bastard at the Laundry Room, Miami Beach in November of 2012.
1. Art Was the Great Leveler 2:32
David guitar, Jean vocal, KRAMER bass
2. What’s Your Name? 3:30
David guitar, Jean vocal and sax, KRAMER bass
3. Wasn’t Said 4:26
David guitar, Jean vocal and piano, KRAMER bass and organ
4. Between Livermore and Tracy 10:19
David guitar, Jean vocal and piano, KRAMER bass, organ and mellotron
5. Normal 4:50
David guitar, Jean vocal, KRAMER bass and organ
6. One Man’s Anger 3:35
David guitar, Jean vocal and piano, KRAMER bass
7. Naked and Ticklish 5:50
David guitar, Jean vocal and guitar, KRAMER bass
8. Maisy’s Death 7:51
David guitar, Jean vocal, KRAMER bass and organ
9. Odele’s Bath 5:43
David guitar, Jean vocal, KRAMER bass
Rec-A-Day Day 86) Mecca Normal “Water Cuts My Hands” (2010, on Tumblr)
Who the fuck needs a rhythm section? I don’t.. at least not when I’m listening to Mecca Normal. I love this duo so much! Strange but I mostly find myself listening to Mecca Normal when I’m by myself. Usually it’s early morning, drinking coffee while my guy is still asleep in the bed or driving somewhere all by my lonesome. Perhaps it’s partially because Mecca Normal records usually sound so personal and I feel like a voyeur and don’t want anyone else around when I’m listening to them. Sounds about right.
Note: I only ever got the chance to “chat” with Jean Smith online for my “Mixed Messages” zine. I know it’s not professional to say but I remember being most excited that she replied to me more than anyone else that I interviewed for that zine. I am her “Vegas Connection”.. I was told that by Jean Smith herself. 🙂
Fav Tracks on this waxxx are “20 Years/No Escape”, “Orange Sunset” and (my personal fav) “Taking The Back Stairs”.
P.S. David Lester you are a genius… thank you for not just playing rhythm guitar but for being talented enough to give you guitar it’s own voice. To where it doesn’t just compliment Jean’s vocals or conversely doesn’t compete with them but finding the perfect middle ground where it is its own entity and intertwines w/ them.
(Mega Mecca link: http://www.myspace.com/meccanormal I strongly encourage you to click every link possible on Mecca Normal’s page so you can get a better understanding of these multifaceted artists. Mecca Normal collectively hold such titles as author, musician, painter, graphic designer and activist.)
“Not Standing Still”,