Mecca Normal – Empathy for the Evil
One of the best live rock shows I ever saw was in a small, “black box” theater in the wings of the Washington Center for the Performing Arts in Olympia, Washington 25 years ago.
Mudhoney was easily my favorite band, their debut EP Superfuzz Bigmuff in constant motion on my record player at home. They were playing their heavy early material, a wild crowd of about 40 people moshed happily and non-stop for a sweaty, thrilling hour.
But one of the most indelible moments of that night was courtesy the opening band, Mecca Normal from Vancouver, B.C. I’d never heard of them. A guy with a guitar (David Lester) and a woman with a microphone and a cast iron skillet (Jean Smart) took the small stage, the distortion pedal clicked, the guitar began to strum, and Jean dropped the skillet hard on the stage and started belting. I thought, “that’s punk rock.”
The rest of the show involved guitar with vivid, largely feminist-flavored poetry recited and sung, prettily at times, with intensity and conviction.
That show’s still vividly in my mind as I listen to their new album Empathy for the Evil, their first release in eight years. I kinda lost track of them, though they were prolific through the 90s, but as the first new song begins, it feels like reading a new chapter in an old book I’d almost forgot about.
Smart’s forceful, elastic voice may beg comparisons to Patti Smith, but she’s a unique artist. Smart is smart, and funny (“The last two guys I started something with had Rottweilers / and I’m not a Rottweiler fancier at all” from “Naked and Ticklish”) and uses lines written from some of her unpublished writings for the lyrics on this album. (She’s published several novels, poetry collections and other written works, and she also makes films and paints!)
In places, the music expands beyond Lester’s guitar, adding sax, bass, vibes and organ, striking repetitive and lovely melodies that set the scene for Jean’s words. Although I get nostalgic for the simpler guitar/voice duets of older days, the varied instrumental settings are always in service of the song. Congrats to famed producer Kramer for this.
An early favorite, “Normal” tells the story of people struggling with the idea of fitting in, going along, being like everyone else – or not. And 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.
The 10-minute-plus “Between Livermore and Tracy,” an abstract description of a less-than-comforting hospital, may require more patience than the common listener is used to, but not all art is easily accessible. For the right ears, in the right context, with an open mind, Empathy for the Evil is a rewarding listen. I don’t expect you’ll hear much of this album on the radio, but if you can make it up to see them in Vancouver this fall, it’s bound to be a night you’ll remember. – (6/10)
(Abe Beeson is the host of Evening Jazz weeknights from 7:30-midnight on 88.5fm KPLU. He’s infrequently also heard on fellow public radio station KEXP, where he hosted The Live Room live local show from 1993 to 2002.)