Made to Rock
Women-led groups provide much-needed thrills.
By Michael McCall
APRIL 20, 1998: "I am a woman with a past, built to last," singer Hope Nicholls snarls with grand defiance throughout "Ford," one of several standout tracks on Tank Top City, the new album by her band, Sugarsmack. The durable, built-to-last part is evident in the brash power of Nicholls' voice, which merges the lusty flamboyance of Bjork with the in-your-face directness of Exene Cervenka. As for her past, Nicholls ranks as one of the great under-recognized rock vocalists of the last decade.
First with the '80s band Fetchin' Bones, and for the last eight years with Sugarsmack, Nicholls has been an underground rock idol, delighting fans with her deliriously manic vocal style. Last year, the rock band Muscadine recorded a tribute to her, "The Ballad of Hope Nicholls." More recently, an Atlanta-based cosmetics firm, Cookie Puss, created a line of loud, unconventionally colored nail polishes and lipsticks, marketing them under the name Sugarsmack in another homage to Nicholls, who tends to dress with peacock-like extravagance by combining a colorful array of mixed-but-not-matched thrift-store oddities.
Tank Top City is the first time Nicholls has been heard on a major-label album since 1989, when the last Fetchin' Bones collection, Monster, came out. Sugarsmack looked as if it might not even get a shot at a national audience; instead, the band has become one of Charlotte, N.C.'s most intensely popular local bands, putting out a series of independently released albums, including 1993's fine Top Loader (which featured one of the great punk-rock songs of the '90s, "Pissed Off") and 1995's Spanish Riffs (which featured an equally enticing single, "Stuff"). The band's new CD, issued in February, is one of a slew of albums pouring forth from the recently revived Sire Records label.
The reason record companies have been slow to pick up on the quartet has nothing to do with talent: Sugarsmack offers kinetic, jagged rock that lies somewhere between England's The Fall and Atlanta's late, lamented The Jody Grind. But the band is too doggedly experimental and too wildly eclectic to fit the easy marketing schemes and narrow airplay niches that major labels demand of their new artists.
Even after all this time, Nicholls and her bandmates--bassist/husband Aaron Pitkin, guitarist Chris Chandek, drummer John Adamian--refuse to compromise. They still sound as if they're running with wild-eyed abandon through a food court of musical styles, piling egg foo yong next to a calzone, then loading up on a heaping helping of falafel. Few bands try to deliver such a big, steaming plate of musical flavors. Fewer still pull it off with such spicy distinction.
Tank Top City finds the band in top form. In characteristic dadaist fashion, Sugarsmack has named eight of the album's 16 songs after U.S. presidents, but only one of the tunes seems to have anything to do with a former head of state: "Taft," with its mock punk fury, suggests that America's most portly president may have been an alien.
That's typical of Nicholls' songwriting style. Cryptic yet provocative, she doesn't tell stories; instead, she strings together phrases that suggest she loves words for how they sound rather than for what they mean. Occasionally, she manages to make a line come across as exceedingly erotic: In "Jefferson," she sings, "It hurts me to look at you, you're so beautiful, just like Julia Robert's mouth," delivering the line as if offering a slow, teasingly voluptuous kiss. There's often an orgasmic quality to the way she pushes verbs and howls consonants: "I saw you twisting your hair at the stoplight," she enunciates heatedly in "Venus," "playing with the gear shift, gear shift, gear shift."
The only song with a clear narrative is "Carter," which Nicholls based on a "News of the Weird" item about a concrete gnome that was stolen from someone's front yard, then secretly returned a year later with a satchel of travelogue photos showing the gnome posed at the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, and other U.S. tourist outposts. It's just the kind of oddball tale that perfectly fits the interstellar punk funk put forth by Nicholls and her band.
Of course, Nicholls isn't the only woman rocker providing a needed contrast to the introspective rantings of such '90s poster girls as Jewel and Fiona Apple. The Tampa, Fla., group Pee Shy inverts the Sugarsmack gender ratio, throwing a lone male into a quartet otherwise composed of females. But like Nicholls' outfit, Pee Shy has delivered one of the more compelling rock albums of 1998 thus far.
Whimsical rather than aggressively impassioned, Pee Shy is a smart, witty pop group led by Cindy Wheeler and Jenny Juristo, both of whom used to perform as spoken-word artists. (Wheeler is a former national poetry slam competition winner.) The two obviously adore words, especially for the playful way they can be used to hint at bigger truths: "You were holding up the bank of me," Wheeler sings in "Mr. Whisper," a brilliant pop confection that deserves to be a major radio hit.
Pee Shy started as a duo, then expanded to a quartet just before recording their major-label debut, 1996's Who Let All the Monkeys Out? That album had a charming, purposeful amateurishness reminiscent of They Might Be Giants. Relying as much on accordion and clarinet as on guitars or keyboards, the collection featured skewed pop tunes along with a few spoken-word pieces.
On Don't Get Too Comfortable, Pee Shy unabashedly takes aim at Middle America. Working with Nashville-based producer Brad Jones, who has worked with Jill Sobule, the band expands and polishes its sound into supremely bright, catchy pop; they manage to pull off accessibility without losing their offbeat charms.
The songs are more conventional and carefully crafted, and Wheeler and Juristo respond to Pee Shy's heightened professionalism with a conviction that would have sounded out of place on their previous album. There are still elements of fancifulness: Marimba, vibraphone, Moog synthesizer, Mellotron, and E-bow augment the accordion and clarinet this time around. But rather than step forward as featured instruments, these unusual musical touches provide a lightness to songs otherwise built upon guitars and rock rhythms.
In truth, the album's best tunes, other than "Mr. Whisper," are the ones that come across as most serious. "Jad Fair" is a beautifully hypnotic song about how the two Pee Shy principals were deeply and surprisingly moved after they witnessed a performance by the singer for Half Japanese. "Tree Craps," "Big Blue Sky," "Fear," and "Some Day Soon" all confront deceit and disappointment in thoughtful, clever ways.
The band still has its weaknesses. While the harmonies are often strong, Juristo's voice sounds particularly thin when she takes the lead. In the end, though, Pee Shy's newer work shows real signs of maturity. Don't Get Too Comfortable suggests the group has the potential to sneak out of the underground and provide the kind of sunny, smart pop that radio so desperately needs these days.
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