Sunday, January 25, 2015

"He was a man who was staunchly confused about most things, but in his role as head of the household, he felt compelled to have strong opinions."

Empathy For The Evil

When I read that Mecca Normal would be recording their thirteenth album with former Shimmy Disc founder Mark Kramer as producer, I admit I was slightly skeptical. How do the poster children of sparse, cutting, post-punk minimalism find common ground with the king of the reverb-laden psychedelic wall of sound?

I've never been happier to have my expectations dashed to the rocks. What has Kramer brought to Mecca Normal? Clarity and subtlety. Jean Smith's nasal-yet-powerful vocals (sometimes double-tracked for emphasis) and David Lester's assertive, scene-setting rhythm guitar are right there in front of you. Kramer's bass and keyboards, Smith's sax and keyboard additions, and Lester's occasional melodic guitar overdubs add color without getting in the way. The sound is sensual, warm, and balanced. Mecca Normal have already put out an imposing amount of great music over the years, but Empathy For The Evil may be the best-sounding album they've ever made.

The new twist this album offers is that the lyrics to all but two tracks are taken directly from two of Jean Smith's novels, The Black Dot Museum of Political Art and Obliterating History. This does not mean Empathy For The Evil is a "spoken-word" album. The songs are vivid fragments of stories with intriguing bits of information left out, spun into elegant phrases sung over Lester's catchy, poignant chord progressions. The more you listen, the more these elusive character sketches stick in your consciousness.

The album opens with a typically jagged Mecca Normal grind called "Art Was The Great Leveler". Over David Lester's choppy punk chords (one of that rare breed of guitarists who is instantly identifiable from the first strum), Jean Smith dissects the social rituals of a community of artists who fancy themselves able to transcend class differences. The words are deadpan and descriptive, but the voice is full of skeptical amusement. When it gets to the part where she reveals the great effort the characters make to hide uncomfortable details about themselves, it simply confirms everything her tone of voice already implied. (Her wry delivery of "art...and hiking" alone is a crackup.)

In contrast, "Wasn't Said" takes a resigned character's internal monologue and elongates the words over slow folky heart-tugging guitar and organ. The emotional effect of the repeated phrases "none of this will matter" and "no communication, no communication" is devastating. Another slower number, "Normal", is a portrait of a petulant boy passing judgement on his mother for her nonconformity. (He sounds utterly insufferable, but Smith is a gifted and confident enough writer to let him speak for himself without editorializing.) "One Man's Anger" dissects another character who hides his fear (and his fear of his fear) behind a more socially acceptable veneer of anger while hypnotic circular chords revolve around him as if to emphasize his own psychic trap. "Naked And Ticklish" is a comical series of character studies of men and dogs that hearkens back to the outrageous tales of disastrous online dating experiences on Mecca Normal's previous album, The Observer.

The album ends with a two-part portrait of a young girl growing up on a remote farm in the Depression with a gruff, abusive father and several brothers, thrust into the role of the hard working "farm wife" for the males of the household after her mother's death. Odele's inner life and her struggle to come of age in an ugly emotional environment is rivetingly told. In the end, even the good side of country living is spoiled for her as she runs away from home at 16 and resolves to "never again eat anything green." To find out what happens to her after that, we'll all have to read The Black Dot Museum of Political Art when it comes out.

Turning long, thick passages of prose into singable, memorable songs, Mecca Normal have revolutionized their music again. If you think you've already heard everything this band is capable of, you need to hear Empathy For The Evil and find out just how wrong you are. After a long-delayed release, you will finally get a chance. Do not miss this one.

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