PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Mecca Normal: Empathy for the Evil

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.

Mecca Normal

Empathy for the Evil

Label: M'lady's
US Release Date: 2014-09-30
UK Release Date: Import

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.


20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.


Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.


The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.


Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).


Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.


Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.


Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.


Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.