Mecca Normal should find favor with fans from its mid-1990s K Records days with the astute Rorschach art rock of Empathy for the Evil.
This year marks the 30th anniversary for Mecca Normal, the avant-garde duo of Jean Smith and David Lester. Yet, the band’s last release was 2006’s The Observer, a conceptual piece about the perils of online dating and disconnected relationships in the virtual world.
In the interim years, Smith and Lester spent their respective time working on various forms of literature and visual arts, often adapting one form into the other. One such event was a 2010 art exhibit, The Black Dot Museum of Political Art. Smith, borrowing this title for a recently-completed novel about Nadine MacHilltop, a political art curator who espouses the curative nature of abstract art to remedy narcissism, uses her prose from this and another novel, Obliterating History – a guitar-making mystery, domination & submission in a small town garage, as the lyrical basis for Mecca Normal’s 13th album, Empathy for the Evil.
Opening with "Art Was the Great Leveler", a Warholian notion that shared experiences trump such psychometric indicators favored by personality tests like Myers–Briggs, Smith intones the beginning of MacHilltop’s relationship with artist Martin Lewis: "Art was the great leveler / Long before it was common to assess personalities / Long before people were talking about other people’s personalities / In terms of why such attractions developed / It would be rationalized based on their mutual interest in art, art and hiking."
Other characters from the novel find their way into Empathy for the Evil; on "Normal" loathed parents Arnie and Yvette eschew the idyllic stereotype of 1950s life, one in which, "A normal family that gathered in front of a TV set / To have dinner off trays laden with grilled cheese sandwiches on Wonder Bread with tall glasses of Tang / At their house it might be steamed clams dipped in individual dishes of melted butter / With a Caesar salad made from a recipe out of Life magazine." On the album’s interlinked closing tracks, matriarch Maisy passes away in 1936 on the first of the Dust Bowl gothic "Maisy’s Death", leaving daughter Odele the lone female in the now-family of four, including her two brothers. Over Lester’s chiming guitar, Smith recounts the corporal punishment meted out by Nestor on her brothers behind the woodshed, the same place she found solace, naked in bubble baths, the same soap used her as her punishment for "Sassing back to her father / Expressing her opinions unasked." Quelling murderous thoughts for two years, on closer "Odele’s Bath”, the heroine finds emancipation from the irrational "emotional tyranny" of father Nestor via a bus out of her agrarian town.
The first installment of Obliterating History – a guitar-making mystery, domination & submission in a small town garage comes on the nihilistic "Wasn’t Said", the album’s most graceful piece. Giving way to the metaphorical 20-mile trek "Between Livermore and Tracy", a sleep-deprived Sisyphean cardiologist is doomed forever to his rounds. The trill "One Man’s Anger” and the chugging fever dream of "Naked and Ticklish” round out the novel’s contributions to the album.
For a band whose modus operandi has been to operate without a rhythm scaffold by using only “an electric guitar and a voice to reject, articulate, embrace, and lament", fans of Mecca Normal will surely notice a more layered sound on Empathy for the Evil, courtesy of producer Kramer. Playing bass on every song and adding vibraphone to Smith’s saxophone on the self-reflective “What’s Your Name”, mellotron on the perilous drone of “Between Livermore and Tracy” and organ smatterings throughout, these often disparate songs of Empathy for the Evil create a nuanced mix of music and performance art in which the visual element is not necessarily required.
Less a concept album than 2006’s The Observer, the seemingly disjointed nature of Empathy for the Evil follows no direct linear thread; rather, the songs speak to understanding the inherent nature of frayed humanity. By realizing a bit of our own being in Smith’s fringe characters, therein we can find compassion rather than assigning blame. While not for mainstream consumption, Mecca Normal should find favor with fans from its mid-1990s K Records days with the astute Rorschach art rock of Empathy for the Evil.