Audio Umami :: Mecca Normal

Pigeon holes are sometimes damnably deep. Mecca Normal, the duo of Jean Smith and David Lester is a fixture of the Pacific Northwest indie-punk scene. They're a major signpost in feminist protest rock; the preeminent proto-riot grrl group. Listening to their mid-90s album, The Eagle and the Poodle, one question kept rattling around my head, though: why are they not a feature in avant rock discussions. Their music frequently experiments in form, texture and expression, more than any of the bands billed as their peers.

Their avant bonafides extend well beyond that. Vocalist Jean Smith had a side project with New Zealand avant-legends, Peter Jefferies and Michael Morley (of This Kind of Punishment and the Dead C, respectively). Sadly, two records they cut together remain out-of-print, even in this digital streaming age. She even has an edgy, (mostly) instrumental solo album to her name—which is nothing to say of what an unconventional vocalist she is.

Why then are Mecca Normal so rarely discussed in those terms?

Again, I'm brought to the conclusion that feminism is like a scarlet letter in criticism. Being a woman who sings about female experience is a frame many can't see beyond. You're forever tossed on the Lilith Fair pile (though Mecca Normal were likely way too outré for that ilk). Which is not to say that Smith shouldn't rightly be proud of her place as a feminist punk icon, but I'd like to leave that aside for a moment and talk about just how experimental her and Mecca Normal's work is.

Let's start with how stark and confrontational Mecca Normal can sound. The precedent for their format—guitar and singer—stretches back to the very beginnings of rock and folk music. It is THE original format. Billy Bragg had already helped forklift the concept into punk rock by the early 80s—but Bragg also had far more ties to traditional melody and songwriting. It's like comparing the Clash to Minor Threat: they're both punk and share significant DNA, but musically they're pursuing different ends.

While David Lester knows his way around a guitar, and isn't afraid of a solid riff, he's equally willing to wallow in dissonance and distortion. The gnarlier aspects of the electric guitar are not just colorations or accents thrown in for decoration, either. He'll linger in them for the duration of an entire song, if need be.

Jean Smith matches him blow by blow. Her phrasing is on time, but she works around the beat, rarely sitting squarely on it. Her tonal range is filled with flat plateaus where she'll draw words out, distending them. I'd like to think it a compliment that the closest antecedent I can find for her delivery is Yoko Ono—even though their styles share little in common.

Of course, here to, I fall prey to my own gripe: I could easily pick a more relevant comparison if I weren't limiting myself to female precedents. Johnny Lydon's haunting warbles across the early PiL albums comes to mind. It's a comparison far closer in time, style and genre—yet I pass it up because we unconsciously limit how we talk about women in music. Hell, when 2 Foot Flame starts really kicking up dust, comparisons to Kieji Haino wouldn't be far off. That would elevate Jean Smith to the same circle as some of the most extreme rock ever made.

Smith, and Mecca Normal, have cemented a place in feminist music history, so let's take a minute to appreciate their other innovations. Let's see about making sure they are mentioned in the annals of avant rock, too. Don't let Smith's words completely overshadow their deeds.

Audio Umami :: Simon Fisher Turner

Do you have one of those friends? One you love dearly, even though they're (perhaps) borderline aspergers? The kind whose quirks, ticks, impulsive behavior, non-sequiturs and off-color jokes are endearing (only if you know where they're coming from). There's an analogy in there, somewhere, for certain kinds of music. Odd music made by odd fellows. Stuff that's deadly hard to recommend without context, but whose presence makes any stack of records a good sight more interesting.

If you're on the lookout for making your stack of records more interesting, I heartily recommend reading the British music magazine, WIRE. They have long been champions of just this sort of musician for decades, now. It's how I came across a one, Simon Fisher Turner.

Before music on the internet was so universally accessible, many of the artists the WIRE interviewed or reviewed could be devilishly hard to come by. I remember reading an interview with the good Simon around the release of his 1996 record, Schwarma. Their description was so intriguing, I just had to have it. Much to my chagrin, it took two years of searching.

Once I finally had it, I barely knew what to make of it. I listened to it repeatedly, trying to make heads or tails of it. It sounded disguised, or obfuscated. I could barely tell you what instruments played on any given song or how they ended up sounding the way they did, and yet nothing comes off so effects-heavy (like the dream-haze of My Bloody Valentine does). Discontiguous sounds drifted through the mix, never to repeat or return, when other events locked into gangly grooves. There seemed to be a cast of thousands—but in-line, not all-at-once. Even the gender of the voices was hard to discern…

I find it curious now, that the WIRE made no (or at least, only cursory) mention of Turner's wide-ranging (and frankly, confusing) backstory. In the early seventies, he was apparently a TV celebrity in England, and something of a teen heartthrob. He cut a record in 1973—pop tunes, I assume, as I've not heard it. Then the readily available information dries up for about a decade.

He resurfaces in 1982 with Deux Filles. The stories around this band are entirely filled with misdirection and hyperbolic fiction:  one thread has the band ending due to spontaneous combustion. To this day, their press releases—all filled with fallacy—occasionally get repeated as fact. The Filles in question were, in fact, Turner and frequent collaborator Colin Lloyd Tucker, both in drag. After two records, the pair recorded a sonically interesting (but even less available) album as Jeremy's Secret. Later in the 80s, they fell in with the El Records crowd, and Turner masterminded the subversive bubblegum pop of Bad Dream Fancy Dress' Choirboys Gas, as well as recording some records under the name The King of Luxembourg.

These sorts stunts likely captured the attention of maverick filmmaker Derek Jarman. Turner would go on to score many of Jarman's films over the course of a decade, up until the director's passing. More than just writing music for film, his job often involved some level of foley-design, culminating in Jarman's swan-song: Blue. Except for an intense, bright blue screen held for 80 minutes, it is strictly a radio play, shaped by Turner. Working in this manner seems to have instilled in him a love of sound: found-sound, manipulated sound, and non-traditional sound. The vast majority of his work after the Jarman's passing involves some element of carefully sculpted audio collage.

His albums seem to sit outside of any concept of genre. They are electronic but not techno or ambient. They are listenable but not pop—at least not in any way we readily conceive of it. They have vocals but his voice (as carried over from the Deux Filles days) is mannered and strangely androgynous. His albums are easy to overlook or dismiss, solely because they're so uncatagorizable, and our brains need categories to understand things quickly.

Simon Fisher Turner's work has never kept any currency with passing trends, though I wouldn't accuse him of being unaware of the times. The El Records material is like a wacky cousin to the reigning C86 jangle pop of its time. His work in the 90s had at least a few peers and (at time) found itself on compilations with outré electronica artists. Of course, the current moment seems to be an era of genre-defying music. Though I doubt its origin could be traced back to Turner (and his decades-long career flouting boundaries) it does make him uniquely and unexpectedly current.

Of course the perennial contrarian could take solace in the fact that, unlike Turner, this new breed of genre-bending musicians are often scruffy and decidedly lo-fi and retro-futuristic. In such times, high production can often be unfairly mistaken for being over-produced. Turner's pristine, foward leaning sound makes it at odds with the ragamuffins that would be his kin today.

Simon Fisher Turner's tangled story is on par with his confounding music. I've returned to his music over the years, never with less than a sense of wonderment. Perhaps, some of the confusion arises from thinking of him as just a musician when he does not approach his career as such. His work encompasses film, photography, installations and yes, music (and probably more). Furthermore, the music he produces is not unrelated, but fully integrated into these other practices. While it's perfectly fair to assess the record as the discreet object it is, doing so isn't very illuminating without additional context. All this can may make him—especially from an ocean away—harder to get a handle on, even in the age of the internet. It certainly makes his albums, and by extension, your stack of records, more interesting, though.

Now seems more of a time, than ever, to check out Simon Fisher Turner's work. Not only is a nearly unprecedented amount (though, certainly, not all) of it available online for purchase or streaming, he's swung into high gear again. Last year he reconnected with Tucker to reprise the Deux Filles (apparently, rumors of their death were wildly exaggerated) and Editions Mego is set to release a new album by him, Giraffe, in February that I am eagerly anticipating.