On “Beaten Down,” from Mecca Normal’s 1986 debut, singer Jean Smith describes how time erodes youthful ideals, but she holds out hope in the last verse: “Maybe some of us will and some of us won’t be beaten down.” Since then Smith and guitarist David Lester have endured rising and falling fortunes: in the mid-90s the duo were hailed as riot grrrl godparents, but in 1997, after their Who Shot Elvis? sold poorly, Matador dropped them. They sound as resolute as ever on The Family Swan (Kill Rock Stars), their first album in five years. In some ways it brings them full circle: they featured guest musicians on their mid-90s discs, but the only sounds on the new record are Smith’s stern, nasal vocals and the duo’s guitars, just like in the early days. But the return to this stripped-down format just emphasizes how much the music has developed. Lester, who once relied heavily on blammo power chords, now fingerpicks tartly and wrings organlike swells from his guitar. And Smith’s delivery has grown less blunt and declarative–on “In January” she forgoes words altogether in favor of eerie moans that dip in and out of Lester’s gritty feedback loops. She still writes about defiance and revolution, but with a greater sense of compassion and ambiguity: although she laments that the apathetic guitar-toting subject of “Revolution # Pine” doesn’t “want to say much about feminism or activism” because “these words don’t fit neatly into songs,” she’s heartened by his tree-loving positivism. She also writes about coming to terms with aged, abusive parents: in “Ice Floes Aweigh” the protagonist talks politely about genealogy with her dying father, but what she really wants to know is, “Why’d you throw that huge glass of chocolate milk at me when I said I was moving out at 17?” Grey Ghost and the duo of Jeff Parker and Michael Zerang will open. Monday, November 11, 9:30 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western; 773-276-3600. Smith and Lester also have artwork hanging in the club’s upstairs space, the Bottle Top, through the date of the show; see Calendar and Section Two gallery listings for details.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Karpa.