Kleenex Girl Wonder

Fireside Bowl, June 22

By Christine Henry

Newspaper and magazine articles about teenagers rarely fail to treat their subjects with disdain. Straight press pieces on teens are the worst–out of touch enough to be good for a laugh though still managing to offend. I remember a Time article about five years ago that classified teenagers into different stereotypical groups, each represented by a photo. There were the Jocks and the Preps, of course. And I learned that I was something called a Video Vogue since I often wore black and owned crystals and candles. The alternative press should be held to a higher standard, which is why Peter Margasak’s Hitsville about Q101’s Jamboree ’96 was so irritating. Margasak’s column repeated the terribly original “alternative to what?” argument, but his primary goal seemed to be making fun of teenagers. How mature.

Stories on bands with members under the age of 20 almost invariably refer to their ages. You can’t find an article about Silverchair that doesn’t link their being obnoxious twits to the fact that they’re teenage boys. And just try to find a piece on Ben Lee that doesn’t say that he’s pretty smart–for a teenager. Would it be appropriate to say that KRS-One is pretty smart–for a black guy?

But being a teenager has its advantages. The boys in Kleenex Girl Wonder get away with shit they probably wouldn’t be able to if they were ten years older. At their Fireside Bowl show they were often silly and sometimes sloppy, but the crowd loved them anyway.

Not to say that they don’t make well-crafted music. The Downers Grove group mixes bubblegum pop and full-power rock with intelligent and completely random lyrics–all filtered through a unique, though somewhat deranged, sensibility. Vocalist and guitarist Graham Smith, who writes a good portion of the band’s music, is kind of a nut. He began the set wearing an oversized sombrero that came down to his waist. On drums was Jeff Giba, and Andy Dunn handled another guitar. Rafeeq Hasan, the band’s usual bass player, was, according to Smith, “cavorting” with his girlfriend in London. His replacement for this evening’s set was Christian Goodwillie.

The band’s I’m Thinking Metric, a cassette-only release, is a trip–a bizarre cross between a children’s record and an intellectual sort of lo-fi album. Short, well-crafted songs are the norm on the seven-inch Exotic Nitwits Keep Exotic Pets. Noteworthy tunes include the two-minute “Frustration Regarding Bedlam on the Sidewalk,” which combines catchy riffs and lyrics in rhyming couplets: “We crash landed quite an extravaganza / And we met a hero named Tony Danza.” Long Live the Pelican Express, the band’s second seven-inch, is a little more slapdash, which is not to say it doesn’t have its charms–what the songs lack in production, some, like “I’m Racing Isaiah,” make up in enjoyability. And we can only hope that the rest of the songs on Sexual Harassment, the band’s forthcoming CD, are half as catchy as the title track.

Kleenex Girl Wonder are often more entertaining in concert than on their records. Past shows included a good set at the Empty Bottle on the night before New Year’s Eve 1995, though they looked like scared rabbits. At Lounge Ax a few months ago Smith hammed it up between songs, dictating instructions to his band while affecting a vaguely British accent.

The Fireside show was more erratic. On “Suit With Pads or Chaps” the band was in top form, playing the complex new instrumental number with a quiet beauty and dignity. Smith had made fun of Oasis earlier when someone had jokingly requested “Champagne Supernova,” but this song reminded me of the wistful, yearning feel of the Brit pop group’s better tunes. “Suit With Pads or Chaps” contrasted sharply with the other no-lyrics song Kleenex Girl Wonder had played earlier, “Heavier-Than-Air Craft,” a crazy, catchy little ditty that reminded me of the Reverend Horton Heat’s cover of the Johnny Quest theme song.

But for every well-played number there was always one or two that were all over the place. Perhaps some of the kinks were due to Hasan’s absence. Goodwillie probably would’ve been fine had Smith not decided to oblige audience members who requested songs that the band obviously hadn’t taught their temporary bass player.

Kleenex Girl Wonder were able to laugh at themselves when things weren’t working out. When someone in the audience requested “Frustration,” Smith protested that Goodwillie didn’t know the song. “I’ll play it,” shouted someone in the crowd. Meanwhile, Dunn began to remind Goodwillie how the song went, saying “You know it!” Goodwillie started to pick out his part, and the insistent fan yelled, “See, he knows it!” Smith grumbled, “It’s kind of strange to have to teach somebody a new song onstage. Thanks for putting us in this awkward situation….All right, don’t blame me if this is a shit pile.” They began to play the song, but just as Smith was beginning to sing, they fell apart. “What did I tell you?” Smith said. He gestured at the audience. “The finger is pointed squarely at you.”

Other highlights included everything from the unabashed pop of “Invisible Hulk” and “Sexual Harassment” to a cover of the schmaltzy classic “Brazil.” As the last song of the set, “Brazil” was yet another audience request that the bass player didn’t know. So instead of singing the song’s lyrics, Smith yelled out the notes. Somehow it worked. Not bad for a bunch of teenagers.

If you’re having trouble finding recordings by Kleenex Girl Wonder, write MOC Records, 4932 Linscott, Downers Grove, IL 60515.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photograph of Kleenex Girl Wonder, uncredited.