Vancouver’s Mecca Normal is a singular group, one that draws only minimally from the past and which couldn’t possibly have sprung from any other group of individuals than poet/vocalist Jean Smith and guitarist David Lester. Though the duo’s sometimes-strident music can be more admired than enjoyed, its strong vision and determined individuality richly rewards those willing to invest in it. Mecca Normal’s arresting sound pairs Smith’s piercing tones and riveting lyrical juxtapositions with Lester’s fiery playing. Despite the large discography, Mecca Normal owes its reputation primarily to intense live performances: Smith taunts the audience, weaving through onlookers, microphone in hand, staring them down and charging them to reexamine and take responsibility for the world they live in. Meanwhile, Lester throws himself at his instrument, filling up the silence, drenching it with passion and sweat. When Smith belts out “Man thinks woman when he talks to me/Something not quite right” as Lester’s guitar extrusions crash down around her, it’s hard not to consider the implications of her words.
Mecca Normal’s first album, initially released on its own label and sold at shows, offers an early glimpse of the band’s nascent sound. Recorded on a cassette 4-track, the songs are captured with a raw authenticity that renders some of them very difficult to listen to. (In this setting, Smith’s voice can be quite sharp.) It took Smith and Lester a while to find their aptest means of expression — “Tolerate Me,” for example, sounds like a rant — but the album does offer two songs which have remained in the group’s live set: the fierce “Are You Hungry Joe?” and “I Walk Alone,” an affirmation of women’s pride. As on all of Mecca Normal’s albums, Smith’s art adorns the cover.
Calico Kills the Cat finds Smith and Lester in a studio more amenable to the lower registers of her voice, so it’s not quite so shrill. Her words and expression, however, are unwaveringly confrontational, while Lester’s passion-filled guitar slashes are stronger, more expressive and curling around tough melodies. “Blue TV” and “Richard” are the seeds of Mecca Normal’s future.
The changes between Calico Kills the Cat and Water Cuts My Hands, which was recorded in Olympia, Washington, with Calvin Johnson and Patrick Maley, are harder to trace. Smith’s new focus on the nuances and malleability of words (the way she croons “mushroom water” on the title song, for example) has become a hallmark of her singing, and Lester heightens the dramatic nature of his guitar playing, dancing in and out of Smith’s iron-edged words. (The two albums are contained on a single CD.)
Dovetail, also recorded with Johnson and Maley in Olympia, sees Lester developing the delicate, melodic side of his playing — always there but never at the forefront — which, in turn, strengthens the melodic pull of Mecca Normal’s songs. Smith, meanwhile, has shifted toward sensitive, artistic emotional observation more than politically conscious challenges. “Throw Silver” is a beautiful, melancholy ballad with sweet guitar; “This Machine” lashes out in both sound and angry but abstract poetry (“I am wanting/I am wishing for wind/To knock this stillness out/Making it anything”). Using her work as a spoken-word artist to inform her singing, Smith displays increasing control as a vocalist.
Flood Plain builds upon Dovetail’s stylistic accomplishments without specifically broadening them; on the whole, the songs aren’t as memorable. Smith’s vocals and Lester’s playing are in closer synch than ever, however; like a couple who finish each other’s sentences, the two dip and slide around each other, building intrigue and mystery on “Ribbon” and “Museum of Open Windows,” a protest against the cost of medical care. Making increasingly good use of the studio, the band layers Smith’s vocals (“Current of Agreement”) and vibrantly contrasting guitar parts (“Greater Beauty”) to enhance the sound and effect.
Many of the missing links between Mecca Normal’s albums are found on Jarred Up (the title comes from a lyric in Dovetail’s “This Machine”), a compilation of the many singles the group released between 1987 and 1993. Among the 22 songs are some of the duo’s most potent: the gender-conscious “Strong White Male” and “Man Thinks Woman,” the powerful humanistic plea of “It’s Important,” the inspirational sing-song “This Is Different,” the angry “Broken Flowers.” Of all the Mecca Normal albums, Jarred Up best captures the group’s fascination with the dichotomies of anger and beauty, feeling and thought, man and woman.
Mecca Normal rethought its stylistic approach after Flood Plain; what the duo came up with was Sitting on Snaps, which lets in a few outside contributors (including New Zealander Peter Jefferies, who became Mecca Normal’s first drummer after the album’s release) and casts a wider sonic net than ever before. When Smith sings “This is not what it’s supposed to be” on the album’s first song (“Vacant Night Sky,” one of two colored in dark gray hues by Jefferies’ emotive piano playing), she is, as usual, quite serious. Lester evinces a more experimental ear (“Frozen Rain,” the dirgey “Only Heat”), while leaving room for some really lovely songs (“Trapped Inside Your Heart”) and Smith’s confident expressions (“Pamela Makes Waves”).
The Eagle & the Poodle sounds like the logical next step after Sitting on Snaps. On the surface, it’s surprising how little having drummer Jefferies as a third member alters Mecca Normal’s overall aural recipe, but it’s not quite so startling given Smith and Lester’s strong musical personalities. In fact, it’s notable how well Jefferies (who appears on seven of the thirteen cuts) integrates himself into the fold; on “Drive At,” for example, his aggressive rhythms don’t overshadow the dynamic between vocals and guitar, instead following Lester’s turbulent waves. Even so, the guitarist has less space to sprawl out and make noise. Smith shifts between empathetic lyrics and singing (“Her Ambition”) and scathing howls (“Prize Arm”), but she is equally compelling in both modes. One thing remains unchanged: Mecca Normal rejects the status quo, even its own version.
Smith’s side band, 2 Foot Flame, is a trio with Jefferies and Michael Morley of the Dead C. All three bring a taste for unconventional structures, with an emphasis on the nuances of sound. The songs on 2 Foot Flame are denser and heavier than Mecca Normal’s, drenching Smith’s potent vocals in a sea of complicated noise: Morley’s moaning synth and shards of guitar, the rhythmic undertow of Jefferies’ drumming, the gloomy plodding of his piano playing. While “Lindauer” and “The Arbitrator” wrap tightly around wiry song structures, others sprawl in a static wash (“To the Sea,” the ten-minute “Cordoned Off”).
Among her other endeavors, Smith has made a solo record and published a novel, I Can Hear Me Fine, which is as difficult and engaging as her music.