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 This song, as with all the lyrics on Empathy for the Evil, come straight from Smith’s recent and unpublished novels, it’s a formula that works so well on this album that it forces you to pay attention to what is happening and not what is missing.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.
Empathy for the Evil is out right now on M’lady’s Records, and you really shouldn’t go another day with out giving it a listen.