Hipsters rarely eat their young, but elders are a tastier kettle of worms. Those busy being reborn don’t usually find it in their hearts to lend a respectful hand to those who took the giant steps before anyone knew enough to admire them for it. In the mid-’80s, Phranc (Susan Gottlieb) brought lesbian folksinging out of the coffeehouses and near the indie-scene fringes of punk. (As an ex-member of such bands as Nervous Gender and Catholic Discipline—with whom she can be seen performing in The Decline of Western Civilization, armed with a Rickenbacker and a pork pie hat—Phranc is a lot more than she appears to be.) At the time, the powers of punk (never mind the rest of music) weren’t exactly out searching for new gender markets or ways to unplug rock. But a decade later, with homocore bands and acoustic artists both commonplace and credible, this Californian found a welcoming home among riot grrrls and the estimable Kill Rock Stars label; the perpetuation of her entertaining, illuminating and inclusive career is not just right but natural.
Looking like a buzz-cut Matt Dillon on the cover of her first album, Phranc comes on as a descendant of such ’60s protest singers as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez and Tom Paxton. Phranc’s topical songs, performed with simple beauty on acoustic guitar, address various subjects and personalities of current interest, from women athletes to Marvel’s Pope comic book to “Female Mudwrestling” to Los Angeles’ celebrity coroner, Thomas Noguchi. Taking one too many cues from Dylan, though, she does an unnecessary reading of his chilling “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and several overly similar originals. Phranc’s not a timeless melodicist, but her wry lyrical observations and attractive singing make Folksinger a fine effort. The 1990 reissue adds “Everywhere I Go (I Hear the Go- Go’s).”
Phranc can barely suppress the giggles as she croons the absurdly outdated Rodgers and Hammerstein song—several layers of gay and feminist irony here—for which she named her second album. I Enjoy Being a Girl, produced by Violent Femme Victor DeLorenzo, has incidental instrumental accompaniment on a few jazzy numbers but is otherwise another one-woman/one-guitar show. Phranc’s concerns here are white guilt (“Bloodbath”), the trendiness of acoustic performers (“Folksinger”), family (the tender “Myriam and Esther”), pets (the winsome “Rodeo Parakeet”), mindless emblem-wearing (the clumsily righteous “Take off Your Swastika”) and a tennis heroine (“M-A-R-T-I-N-A”).
The brief Positively Phranc intermittently brings tasteful electric accompaniment into the picture while narrowing the lyrical focus to mostly concentrate on romance (a concept that here involves, as it so often does, cars and girls). The AIDS lamentation “Outta Here” is cast as the end of love, while “Hitchcock,” co-written with Dave Alvin, uses the director’s films to suffer over a woman who resembles Kim Novak (in Vertigo, Phranc cleverly notes, “both of her look so much like you”). Upholding her topical responsibilities, Phranc tenderly eulogizes gender- masquerading jazz pianist Billy Tipton and rails against identity strictures (a little late for that one…). With typical aplomb, she rewrites Jonathan Richman’s “Pablo Picasso” as “Gertrude Stein” (“girls could not resist her stare…”) and sings Brian Wilson’s “Surfer Girl” as a gorgeous a cappella double entendre.
In the summer of 1991, shortly after Positively‘s release, Phranc’s brother was murdered, and her recording career took a back seat for several years. She toured a campy Neil Diamond tribute show for a while and released a single on KRS in 1994. The following year, she made Goofyfoot, a spry surfing-obsessed EP with backing from bassist Donna Dresch (Team Dresch), drummer Patty Schemel (Hole) and drummer Tobi Vail (Bikini Kill). The three originals are “Surferdyke Pal,” the reverb-splattering beach-twangin’ instrumental title track and “Bulldagger Swagger,” which was the A-side of the prior 7-inch. Elsewhere, Phranc proves herself a dab hand on ukulele (a nifty cover of “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter”) and a stylish Southern crooner (“Ode to Billy Joe”).