Newly riot-ous or not, the latest renaissance of “girl” rock takes a scalpel to the pumped-up sounds and stances of contemporary hard rock, which in many cases is just another reprise of early-’70s heavy-metal pomposity. But the simple, even stark sounds of outfits like Mecca Normal, Bratmobile, and Tiger Trap—all bands with essential links to the low-tech, low-budget world of the cottage-industry 7-inch single—don’t merely call into question the grand gestures of a new generation of arena-rock potentates. They also prove remarkably effective on their terms.
Well before the word “girl” (or the variant “grrrl”) came self-consciously back into acceptance, Mecca Normal was questioning the world of the “Strong White Male,” the title of the first track on the duo’s Jarred Up. Assembled from singles and compilation tracks released between 1987 and 1993, these 22 edgy songs use only the voice (sometimes in duet with itself) of Jean Smith and the guitar of David Lester. (Smith contributes guitar noise to two tracks.) The unadorned format recalls the early Patti Smith/Lenny Kaye team-up, but this Smith (who has a novel due out soon) is less involved in rock ‘n’ roll myth and less interested in commercial crossover. “Man thinks woman when he looks at me,” notes the singer in “Man Thinks Woman,” but Jarred Up is here to demonstrate that that’s far too reductive.
Smith may have the words, but Lester’s sometimes caustic, sometimes lyrical guitar is equally important. Indeed, the essence of this Vancouver duo is the symbiosis between Smith’s instrumental voice and Lester’s vocal guitar. Their dialogue has a versatility that belies the band’s voice/guitar setup; following the lyrics has its benefits, but compositions like “Follow Down” have an incantatory power that’s purely musical.
The basic approach guarantees that the earliest tracks on Jarred have plenty in common with the latest, yet there’s room to move within the self-imposed stylistic straitjacket: On “Armchairs Fit” and “Rose,” Lester’s guitar summons the propulsive power of a full garage band, while “He Didn’t Say” matches the guitarist’s folkish finger-picking with Smith’s voice and buzzing guitar noise.
Marrying the earnestness of folk to the impact of rock (compare the Raincoats and early Billy Bragg) is an essential gambit of such sophisticated primitives, but Mecca Normal keeps its balance better than most. In the anti-materialist, anti-American rant, “More More More,” when Smith decries the people “that keep you wanting more more more,” she makes her point with less less less. “All I want you to do/Is think about the possibilities,” the song concludes. Jarred Up offers, as that other Smith once put it, “a sea of possibilities.”