Category Archives: Reviews

The Jealous Curator

 

 

It was a thrill to have 5 of my paintings featured on The Jealous Curator‘s blog today.

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“First, oh my word I love these portraits {acrylic on canvas panel} so, so, so much. Second, Canadian rocker turned painter Jean Smith sells these paintings on Facebook for $100 a pop. WHAT? Yes, true story. Are you wondering what you’re still doing here and why you’re not over there buying a whole bunch of these 11×14 beauties? Me too. Here you go… Jean’s Facebook page. You’re welcome.” – The Jealous Curator

$100 USD paintings currently available

Singer #4 by Jean Smith throwsilver@hotmail.comNo Hat 200 500No Hat 167 500No Hat #116 by Jean Smith throwsilver@hotmail.comNo Hat #79 by Jean Smith throwsilver@hotmail.com

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Music That I Like – Everett True

Song of the day (the old and the new) – 11. Little Mix and Mecca Normal

“I love the passion, the intent of Mecca Normal. The searing literacy. The relentless beauty. The admittance that most all relationships are always power struggles, especially when you least expect it. Crudely, three of my favourite artists remind me of Mecca Normal (not the other way round). That’s a recommendation in itself. The dialogue present in every Mecca Normal song I have heard is worth experiencing again and again. It does not infantilise the listener, much as the listener may want to be infantalised. It does not cause the listener to cast aside the class struggle that is central to day-to-day life, whether individuals are aware of it or not.” – Evertt True

 

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“We Oughta Know” by Andrea Warner

An entry in an appendix of Canadian women in music, in the book “We Oughta Know: How Four Women Ruled the ’90s and Changed Canadian Music” by Andrea Warner (Eternal Cavalier Press, 2015)

Mecca Normal, 1984 – present
Key 90s songs:
“Vacant Night Sky ” from Sitting on Snaps (Matador Records, 1995)
“Waiting for Rudy” from Flood Plain (K Records, 1993)

“Underground art-punk rock duo Jean Smith (vocalist) and David Lester (guitarist) have been crafting weird, tightly coiled but loosely structured songs about gender, feminism, politics, and social justice isues since 1984. Anybody who knows Beat Happening, Bikini Kill, and Sleater-Kinney should know Mecca Normal, almost nobody does. I’m ashamed to admit that up until last year, I barely knew them either. They’re a hometown band and I’m a feminist who writes about music and still I never came across Mecca Normal until someone alerted me to their existence after I wrote an essay about how much I missed the political fire of music from the ’90s. Mecca Normal were riot grrrl and DIY before those movements existed, and they were tireless in their commitment to their art, releasing seven records in the ’90s alone. In fact, Mecca Normal were basically doing the 90s in the 80s. Consider the still-relevant subject matter of their mid-’80s tunes like “Smile Baby,” which calls out street harassment (yes, three decades ago), “More, More, More” which addresses the privilege of white men and the American Dream, and the simple, chilling, and inspiring “I Walk Alone” which affirms a woman’s right to safety in a public space. It’s important music that still matters today.” – Andrea Warner

 

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RATE YOUR MUSIC

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

 

 

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Pitchfork’s story of feminist punk in 33 songs

pitchforkMecca Normal‘s “Man Thinks Woman” (1987) made the cut with a great write-up by Douglas Wolk for Pitchfork’s story of feminist punk in 33 songs

“Mecca Normal break rules like they never noticed them in the first place. The Vancouver-based duo of singer Jean Smith and guitarist David Lester are anarchist-feminist activists and constant experimentalists, implying a rhythm section with negative space alone. Always an intense presence onstage, they’ve become the most tenacious of D.I.Y. road warriors, touring and recording for 32 years now. In the early ’90s, they popped up on most of the biggest American indie-rock labels (Sub Pop, K, Matador); by their 25th anniversary, they were on the road with a performance-and-lecture project called “How Art & Music Can Change the World.”

Smith’s lyrics often foreground her political perspective; their anthem “Man Thinks ‘Woman,’” released in 1987, started out as a barbed dissection of gender normativity: “Man thinks ‘woman’ when he talks to me/Something not quite right.” The song kept expanding its radius from there, encompassing both bitter poetics and a disarmingly funny account of a drunken makeout gone weird. Kathleen Hanna has cited Smith as an early inspiration: “When I saw her,” she told The Fader, “I was just like, that’s it. I’m done. I’m sold.” –Douglas Wolk

“Man Thinks Woman” video by David Lester

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“Oh Yes You Can” 7″ on K Records (1987)

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Jarred Up” compilation of singles on K Records (1993)

A mess of Mecca Normal songs pulled together from singles and compilations dating to 1992, rounding out the first eight years of their existence. Dunt fear, Mecca Normal are still going strong! Jarred Up reveals the awesome might of their thing; it is the essential Mecca Normal Document.

A K Records Essential.

Track Listing
Strong White Male
Man Thinks Woman
Forlorn
He Didn’t Say
Follow Down
It’s Important
How Many Now?
Horse Heaven Hills
This Is Different
Armchairs Fit
Accidently
You Heard It All
Days
Fan of Sparks
Narrow
Upside Down Flames
From The Surface
More More More
Echo
One More Safe
Rose

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Quotes

“Mecca Normal. The first time I saw them was on the Black Wedge tour where they got together with their friends and said, “hey, this is important, let’s do it.” It wasn’t as if they were saying, “How can we sell this new album?” It was a tour of people and half of them weren’t even bands.” – Calvin Johnson

 

“Everyone tells them to ‘Get a drummer’, I get the feeling these two don’t need to listen to everyone.” – Option Magazine (LA), review of the first MN album

 

“What they reveal is an unvarnished, unpremeditated, wholly natural songwriting skill. This is a naked and very close musical relationship.” – The Vancouver Province reviews the first MN album

 

“Jean’s the one with ‘that voice’, a completely riveting presence that’s only more powerful when backed solely by Lester’s guitar.” – Gerard Cosloy (reviewing Calico Kills the Cat LP in Conflict)

 

“Mecca Normal makes records I can see myself listening to twenty years from now with no loss of interest.” – Terry Dawes reviewing ‘Flood Plain’ in Planet of The Arts (Vancouver) 1993

 

“This music resonates with feminism’s understanding of the body as a locus of political meaning, a knowledge difficult for any woman walking down a city street to escape… I don’t know of any other rock ‘n’ roll so closely attuned to the realities of women’s rage.” – Village Voice (NY)

 

“But until you see her face down a crowd of hypocritical and uninterested punk rockers, you don’t know what true heroism is. Smith’s music is dissonant, deeply felt, feminist, courageous.” – Gina Arnold (San Diego Weekly)

 

“I wouldn’t be in a band if I hadn’t heard of Jean. She’s shown me through her lyrics that you can be a feminist and still be whoever you want to be. You don’t have to lose contact with the world.” – Kathleen Hanna (Network, Toronto)

 

The first time I saw Mecca Normal, I was so blown away that I could not speak. My friend Rich Jensen introduced me to them, but I was left utterly speechless by the genius and power of their show. So I just stuck out the album I had just bought and got them to sign it. They were like music gods to me. – Slim Moon

 

“Your voice, your lyrics, Dave’s guitar have made me cry and hope over and over and over again. You are beautiful, brave and very strong people and you have touched my life tremendously.” – Cathee (Los Angeles)

 

“After these hicks where I live beat me up because I dress and act different and think for myself I put on one of your records and it makes me proud of who I am.” – Robert (Oklahoma) in letter sent through the postal service

 

Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggle.

Part of David Lester’s contribution to a new book called Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggle.

“This evocative collection of the struggles and achievements of labour organizing should inspire us to ‘dream of what might be’ and to act to bring it about.” – Noam Chomsky

BallantineGraphic Histories book

Mecca Normal’s collaboration for Normal History, Magnet Magazine May 28, 2016 Vol. 375

 

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Notes and Quotes

Excerpt from David Lester’s collection of tour diary notes, reviews and comments.

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“She was—and still is—a really political person, a political being who really walks the talk. And the effect of her views on me in turn affected the band. We started looking at the world differently—and certainly from more of a left-of-centre viewpoint.” – John Mann of the band Spirit of the West on Jean Smith, 2008

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A New Review of 2006’s “The Observer”

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

Compendium of Reviews

1 NEW March-2014

Empathy for the Evil” is Mecca Normal’s 13th album. Here are segments of our favorite reviews so far.

“…Smith’s characters deal with the inequality and power imbalances that mark modern society.”  Colin Joyce, Pitchfork (USA)

“…the songs speak to understanding the inherent nature of frayed humanity.”  Eric Risch, PopMatters (USA)

“Turning long, thick passages of prose into singable, memorable songs, Mecca Normal have revolutionized their music again. If you think you’ve already heard everything this band is capable of, you need to hear Empathy For The Evil and find out just how wrong you are. After a long-delayed release, you will finally get a chance. Do not miss this one.” – J Neo Marvin, Ear Candle Productions (San Francisco)

“For the thoughtful listener who appreciates both a good work of fiction and a nice dose of indie folk ‘Empathy for the Evil’ is the record for you.” – Mark Anthony Brennan, Ride the Tempo (Canada) rated 4 out of 5 stars

“… Smith’s words are full of wisdom and humour and cut right through the materialism of the world of rock.” – Tucker Petertil, The Big Takeover (New York)

“Duo Jean Smith and David Lester have been making raw, stripped-down garage rock since the mid 1980s. It’s rare to have this much power and emotion come from one guitarist and one singer. They always keep it real.” – Dawn Jewell, NPR-affiliate WOUB (Athens, Ohio), Top Albums of 2014

“The songs on Empathy are mesmerizing, with Smith sucking you with her trance-like vocals and poetic lyrics backed by Lester’s equally as spellbinding guitar riffs.”  Steve Long, Red Dirt Report (Oklahoma)

“Songs like the rollicking “Art Was the Great Leveler” and the more subdued “Normal” focus on the intricacies of the artist’s life – the things that connect, join folks together and perhaps drive wedges between them. I can think of no one better than Smith and Lester to show us the way.”  Alison Lang, Broken Pencil (Canada)

“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 height 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.”  Brian Snider, Secretly-Important (Seattle)

“Art is the Great Leveler, is a beautiful tale weaving Smith’s love for art and relationships, how art can bring two people together.”  Troy Michael, Innocent Words (Chicago)

“This is a masterpiece of story and manifesto, a lesson in life…”  Sean Michaels, Said the Gramophone (Canada)

“Mecca Normal is not a normal band. They’re free of clichés, unconcerned with catchy pop hooks or mass appeal. They have made some art, and they’d like you to enjoy it on their terms. It’s refreshing, and I’m digging it.”  Abe Beeson, Nado Mucho (Pacific Northwest)

“If you’re interested in an adrenalin experience which features angst rock themes that challenge the slow flow of our society, look no further.”  Eden Gillespie, Happy (Australia)

“Their sound is now and ever shall be weird, unhip, oddly alluring and precise.”  Patrick Rapa , Philly City Paper

“Empathy For The Evil is as pure an expression of conscious, intelligent rock music as you’re likely to hear, with every track, from Art Was The Great Leveller to Odele’s Bath, providing food for mind and soul alike.”  The Crack Magazine (UK)

“The uncompromising art of Mecca Normal has been one of the more inspiring stories of the last 30 years.”  Bob Ham, The Weekly Spin (Portland)

“It’s interesting to hear a group from THEN — the ’80s—continuing to play into the NOW. Like, Mecca Normal have been together for 30 years, and in context with contemporary “indie” groups, they sound like fucking GIANTS! Their maturity and immediacy screams in the face of contemporary “indie,” which, as it became pop music, has become parody. Mecca Normal never conceded to pop-radio aims, they just kept growing their own.”  Mike Nipper, The Stranger (Seattle)

“I had never seen Mecca Normal perform live before, and I was totally thrilled and blown away. They mostly performed songs from their new record Empathy for the Evil, which is fantastic…”  This is Fag City (New York)

“This is a thoughtful, moving, and reflective album completely out of step with anything in commercial music which is, of course, a good thing.”  Allan MacInnis, Georgia Straight (Vancouver)

“A fascinating piece, minimalist and upsetting. This new album is beautiful.”  K-Fuel, webzine (France)

“Moved inside for Mecca Normal. What can you say? Listening to Jean intone a phrase like “Art Was the Great Leveler” (1st song on the new album, Empathy for the Evil) while David whacks the elasticity out of what always sound like brand-new strings has been one of the consistent pleasures of my music-going life.”  Franklin Bruno, live review of a show at Troost, New York City

“Mecca Normal has been speaking truth to power since 1984. By day Mecca Normal is mild-mannered writer Jean Smith and graphic artist David Lester, by night the duo wield voice and guitar as weapons of mass provocation, spreading their message of change and social justice far and wide.”  Shawn Conner, Vancouver Sun

“They remain in fine form on the provocatively entitled new album Empathy for the Evil, again mixing the personal and political.”  Kerry Doole, New Canadian Music

“Their insistence that a punk group could be made up of just two people following their own rules — no bass player, quiet guitar/loud vocals, storytelling as a performance art — challenged the prevailing definitions of “punk,” re-enforcing an alternate, more radical definition rooted in the DIY ethic.” — Wondering Sound (New York)

“But instead of celebrating or castigating evil, Smith traces how the absence of empathy manifests as something that looks very much like it: narcissism.”  Bill Meyer, Magnet Magazine (USA)

“The new album’s guitar- and organ-driven single ‘Wasn’t Said’ offers an introspective introduction to their lyrically focused and poignant rock realism. Their set should be a charmingly unhinged, rare treat. Recommended.”  by Brittnie Fuller, The Stranger

“Her (Jean’s) performance is like a thunderstorm, breathtaking and powerful, in which every lightning bolt is politically-charged.”  Dillon Ramsey, Master’s candidate at SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts, Vandocument (Vancouver)

“With this awe-inspiring show of moral and musical strength, Mecca Normal concludes Wrong Wave 2014 in all the right ways.”  Dillon Ramsey, Master’s candidate at SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts, Vandocument (Vancouver)

“The overall vibe of this interview is testament to the fact that Mecca Normal is definitely not some relic of bygone times but a vibrant and prolific artistic force. I’ll admit that I was only familiar with their musical output, of which I consider to be absolutely necessary to listen to if you haven’t already. I have had my eyes opened to the other artistic outputs of this duo — Jean Smith and David Lester.”  Getting Past The Static (Austin, TX)

“In the early nineties I bought my first Mecca Normal album, the cassette tape of “Dovetail,” released in 1992 by Olympia-based independent record label K Records.  I was 13 or 14.” Sweetheart Redux Interview