The Poison Girls — a wise post-adolescent poet/singer/guitarist who wittily calls herself Vi Subversa plus a male backing band — are politicized musical agitators employing rock (minimalist at the start but improving steadily to the point of sophisticated diversity later on) as their means for registering social and sexual protest. Lyrics are clever and subtle, making points with intelligence rather than sloganeering.
Produced by Crass drummer Penny Rimbaud and featuring guest vocals by that band’s Eve Libertine, Hex makes no grand statements (even the frantic “Bremen Song” doesn’t really say anything cogent). Instead, Vi’s lyrics deal cleverly with sex roles and existential personal issues. What is normal? Do we really need doctors? Is romance political? The guitar-based music is really good — nothing fancy, but subtle and effective on its own terms.
The music isn’t much more raucous on Chappaquiddick Bridge (also produced by Rimbaud), but the lyrics (and Subversa’s angry singing) are far more bilious. From the bluntly titled “Statement” (a humanist manifesto delivered via a bonus flexi-disc) to the sexual analysis of “Good Time (I Didn’t Know Sartre Played Piano)” and the duck-for-cover “Underbitch,” the prose is substantial (if unfocused) and Subversa’s theatrical delivery sells it even when the words don’t amount to much.
Some of the songs on the live (in Edinburgh, mid-’81) Total Exposure — pressed on clear vinyl and fitted in a transparent plastic sleeve — come from the first two LPs, but there’s new material as well. It’s an exciting document, but the studio albums offer an easier entry point to the Poison Girls’ music, thanks to a somewhat varied approach that doesn’t carry over in concert.
With their musical skills much improved, Where’s the Pleasure balances intellectual integrity with audio listenability and achieves a measure of success on musical merit alone. Largely ignoring the governmental politics of the first two studio discs, Where’s the Pleasure deals almost solely with sexual matters, using refined music and crystal-clear vocals. Subversa’s weary, whisky-and-tobacco-stained voice is a husky but serviceable instrument that perfectly suits the material and lends a tragic, poetic air to the record.
Even more accessible is the wonderful I’m Not a Real Woman EP — four varied songs that utterly abandon punk for a rock-cabaret sound, Celtic folk singing and poetic recitation. At her funniest, Subversa employs a Noel Coward-like delivery to offer her sharp feminist lyrics.
Songs of Praise is even more skillful and attractive. Having long since proven herself a talented and unique singer, Vi is in fine voice; the band stretches further into areas of sublime, suave rock and funk scarcely imaginable at the group’s outset. Lyrics are likewise subtler and more intriguing, setting this album somewhere between Marianne Faithfull, John Cale and Ian Dury.