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.