Born in Chicago, Holly Beth Vincent began her music career in the late-’70s punk scene, playing drums and guitar and singing in such forgotten bands as the Brothel Creepers and the all-female Backstage Pass. During a stay in Los Angeles, she convened Holly and the Italians with drummer Steve Dalton (aka Steve Young), but the group relocated to London in 1979, where “Tell That Girl to Shut Up,” the 1980 song for which Vincent is still best known, was recorded. The single established her tough pop-rock style and briefly captured the full attention of the British press and public. The success of that belligerent charmer led to a deal and an album, which was hindered by such problems as firing the producer halfway through and starting from scratch with another, losing the drummer in midstream and having to find a replacement. It took more than a year to finish, but it was well worth the wait. Produced in roaring power pop style by Richard Gottehrer, The Right to Be Italian is a new wave classic of romantic ups and downs, leather-jacket rebellion and kitsch culture, carried mightily on Vincent’s tough-girl attitude, full-throated singing, gale-force Brill Building melodies and chunky rhythm guitar presence. The hybrid LA/London sound, with glimpses of the Ramones, Blondie and Cheap Trick, is a powerful and original creation.
The Right to Be Italian wasn’t a commercial success, and Holly broke up the band, remaining in England for a time to soft-launch a solo career. The stunning result, produced by Mike Thorne, has a misleading title and bears little resemblance to its predecessor. Holly and the Italians plays up Vincent’s voice and songs in a mesmerizing and mature swirl of baroque atmospheres, opaque introspection, sexual ambivalence and psychedelically distorted hallucinations. The striking music is based on violin (played by Bobby Valentino of the Fabulous Poodles) and keyboards (Thorne) as much as guitar. If Joni Mitchell and Ronnie Spector mated with Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen, the offspring of their offspring might have conceived something like this. Although Vincent took some flak for recording a totally overhauled version of the Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” she does manage to make something new and different out of the well-known tune. Elsewhere, sensitive, moody originals like “Samurai and Courtesan” and “Uptown” contrast with upbeat rockers like “We Danced” and “Honalu,” all displaying a unique viewpoint in subtly evocative lyrics. Even more than its predecessor, this is an incredible album by an enormously gifted singer, writer and performer. (The American release has one different cut and far better sequencing.)
Vincent didn’t release another album for more than a decade. In the meantime, she surfaced in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere, duetting with Joey Ramone on a great 1982 single of “I Got You Babe,” serving a brief, unrecorded stint in the Waitresses and forming a one-gig group called Bikey with her brother Nick before his tenure as Frank Black’s drummer. Through a number of undocumented bands, Vincent kept strings (mostly cello) as a distinctive counterpoint to her punky rock poise.
Vincent’s return to the recording studio finally came, surprisingly enough, through the auspices of Indigo Girl Amy Ray. She encouraged (and funded) Vincent to form a band and record America, which was issued on Ray’s label, Daemon. The Oblivious album is roughly produced with the vocals mixed low and the guitars loud and blurry, but it’s hard-hitting, smartly played and marbled with some great songs. The reversion to primal rock directness is aerated by Vincent’s self-harmonizing doubletracked singing and broken by the violinized delicacy of such numbers as “America (I’m Wasted)” and “Witness.” In the obsessive desires of “Crush,” “D.S.F.” and “That Was,” the wry disdain of “It’s the Sound” (“This life is good for me / It said so on my record sleeve / It said so in my favorite books / And on the street when I get looks”) and the taut violence of “Fired Away,” Vincent displays the sinew, melodic acuity and raw nerve that make her music so compelling. A strong showing after such a long absence.
The strange (and unfortunately named) fruit of a brief alliance with Johnette Napolitano, then on her way out of Concrete Blonde, Vowel Movement is a minor album the pair improvised on bass (mostly played by Napolitano) and drums (mostly played by Vincent). Both wrote lyrics and sang; Vincent overdubbed guitar. Sloppy and undeveloped, indulgent, haphazard and just flat-out noisy, the album occasionally happens onto terra firma (“Las Vegas,” both versions of “Jackie Baby,” “Jesus,” “Death of a Surfer”), but too much of it flails along shapelessly, a doomed work in progress.
Following the overdue CD issues of Holly’s first two albums (both with neat bonus tracks; the solo album adds six, including a seven-minute mix of “For What It’s Worth” and “I Got You Babe”), the same label came up with Demos Federico, a strong two-disc set of demos dating from 1979 to 1998. Early versions of “Honalu” and “Unoriginal Sin” (which contains the great line “Give me love, I can take it”) prove the intrinsic quality of the songs Thorne had to work his magic on. A lot of the left-behind material compiled here is equally impressive: “Fanzine,” “One More Dance,” the yearning “Hey Christine,” “The Longest Breath” and “Mercy” (in two different versions) are all potent additions to the Vincent canon.