If you happened to wander into the vinyl wonderland that is Radio-Active Records last Friday night, you would have been confronted with a scene not too far removed from your average Harmony Korine flick. Ok, maybe it wasn't that uncomfortable, but to the uninitiated, an intimate performance by Vancouver's Mecca Normal had the capacity to produce, well awkward feelings.
But a real-deal independent record store's modus operandi -- perhaps ranking even higher on the list of priorities than the hawking of vinyl -- is to harbor and enrich a community's love of artistic oddities and then provide a place to drink coffee and argue about "how fucking punk-rock it was for Ceremony to go from super-hyped hardcore band to kind of cool rock band."
Radio-Active provided cozy surrounds for Mecca Normal's enthusiastic display of spoken word/guitar riff fusion. It left attendees little room to escape Jean Smith's aggressive poetry readings that rode atop guitarist David Lester's frantic guitar stylings. The duo performed sans additional accompaniment: Smith took an aggressive pose as she read lyrics, and stories, and even passages from her novels -- looking something of a combination between Patti Smith and the late Ronnie James Dio.
Smith and Lester have worked together for the better part of 30 years now, releasing numerous albums, graphic novels, other such literary works, both as Mecca Normal and via their own solo pursuits. To see them in their current state, playing to a small crowd in the window of a record store, betrays the group's importance.
Mecca Normal has been heralded as a directly traceable influence on much of the riot grrrl movement, as well as the indie rock the Pacific Northwest perfected in the '90s. The band has released albums on K Records, Matador, and Kill Rock Stars, and regardless of how much one enjoys or dislikes Mecca Normal's music, the experience of witnessing such an important piece of the puzzle function in a setting as intimate as Friday's cannot be discounted.
The very reason the duo made it to South Florida speaks volumes about the respect they've earned over the years. They're here to record an album with South Florida's own noise visionary, Rat Bastard, and Mark Kramer, a man who has worked with the top of the heap in terms of the off-kilter, including the Butthole Surfers, John Zorn, Ween, White Zombie, Sonic Youth, and even producing/engineering/arranging Urge Overkill's absolutely devastating cover of "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" for the Pulp Fiction soundtrack.
As Smith explained to us, this was the first time Rat and Kramer worked together on an album, and that while working with the two fairly infamous knob-twiddlers was "a leap of faith" at first, the four days spent in the studio yielded 16 songs, and proved to be an experience to remember. The album features some musical cameos from Rat and Kramer in addition to their production and engineering work, including some vibraphone and organ a la Kramer (which can mean just about anything) and a bit of Rat "spewing his guitar magic," as Smith put it.
The sparseness of Friday's live performance was a bit unsettling at first, though the group's confidence certainly rubbed off on the small audience. Lester strummed and picked melodic progressions while swaying about as Smith visually stalked the room, at one point even venturing around the store without her mic to speak-sing a few lines.
Still, Mecca Normal's music is not necessarily built for a live presentation, especially considering the once-in-a-lifetime, completely mind-bending sounds the audience will hear once this new release sees light.