All punk rockers grow up eventually, but few have done so as gracefully as Penelope Houston. In her solo career, the one-time teenage Avenger treads a softer, often folk-oriented path, successfully avoiding the enervating trap of generic roots ennui. The reasons are simple enough. Over the years, the Californian’s songwriting has become sharp and well developed; her arrangements (fashioned with a steady core of backing musicians) are skillful and unorthodox. Then there’s that voice — a sweet, sinewy instrument of wide-ranging expressiveness and utter clarity.
After a post-punk hiatus that lasted four years, Houston reemerged in 1986 with a minimal single released under the name -30-, made with such collaborators as Howard Devoto and Alex Gibson. That record’s two tracks are included on Birdboys, a melodic and sometimes spirited album that is, finally, mediocre. In retrospect, Houston just wasn’t ready to do commanding work in a softer context — the jangling music is minor and some of the material is downright chirpy.
Six years of writing, playing and traveling later, everything fell into place. The Whole World is a gorgeous, odd and uniformly thrilling record. Houston’s phrasing is controlled and masterful, the songs are witty, well sketched and tinged with bittersweet urgency. The acoustic band — Mel Peppas (mandolin, guitar), Steven Strauss (bass), Eliot Nemzer (guitar) and Kevin Mummey (drums) — is an intriguing chamber-folk combo, led by Houston’s autoharp and melodica; instrumentation also includes bandoneon, dumbek, clarinet and french horn. Every song is a joy, from the torchy “Behind Your Eyes” and the ominous “Sugarburn” to the straightforward pop swing of “On Borrowed Time” and the no-nonsense feminism of “Glad I’m a Girl.” A virtually perfect record, with one of the best displays of pure vocal gifts the “alternative” universe will ever hear.
The Whole World found its warmest reception overseas, where Houston was dubbed the Queen of New Folk in various languages. Whatever the value of such an appellation, it did enable her to crank out a bounty of material for the German Normal label. Karmal Apple, the only formal album of the bunch, is neither as ornate nor as captivatingly unique as its predecessor, but it’s still a fine effort that replaces quirkiness with vivacity and eclecticism with solidity. Standouts include the sprightly “Everybody’s Little Dream,” the tough pop of “Fall Back,” the melodramatic “Flourish” and, best of all, the string-laden balladic beauty of “Water Wheel” and “Make Me.”
Return to Sender is Normal’s limited-edition, generally off-the-cuff, series of American music. As the title would suggest, Silk Purse (From a Sow’s Ear) fits right into that notion, with a handful of charming live tracks and outtakes, including a darkly pretty cover of Alex Chilton’s “Take Care.” Houston shares the credit on Crazy Baby with Patrick Johnson, a frequent songwriting partner. The record’s primary attraction is the chance to hear Houston singing in an ultra-minimal context, as nine of Johnson’s songs (plus one he co-wrote and another by Mary O’Neil, another songwriter Houston regularly favors) are presented in spare arrangements. Both records offer good stuff as far as these things go, and are definitely essential for fans.
All of Houston’s prior releases are fairly hard to find, so maybe it’s not such a bad thing that Cut You, her major-label debut, consists almost entirely of new recordings of previously issued songs. (Houston is not exactly a prolific composer.) Fortunately, Cut You does not suffer from any flashy revisionism. Longtime listeners may prefer the original renditions — it is odd to notice an electric guitar that wasn’t there before, or a french horn that’s MIA — but the record offers a solid cross-section of her material, the playing and recording quality are absolutely vibrant and Houston sings as wonderfully as ever. New versions of “Harry Dean” and “Waiting Room” (both on Birdboys) are definite improvements, while the all-new “Pull” is an out-and-out scorcher, with speedy circular guitar licks and no-nonsense vocals. The album also includes the two best items from The Whole World: the beautiful, wistfully defiant “Sweetheart” and the brilliant “Qualities of Mercy,” a wise, impeccably structured and soul-tugging song with the added bonus of an clever Gerry and the Pacemakers pun.