Mecca Normal is the brainchild of one Jean Smith. She is one half of the band along with guitarist David Lester, but Smith seems to do the brunt of the work. And for this particular album, she has taken the concept of online dating, and Smith’s experiences with these virtual and sometimes real relationships, and put it into music. The idea of online dating often evokes images of the antithesis of anything you’d hope for in a mate on the other end of the broadband or wi-fi connection. But here Smith gives it a different spin. And while some might see P.J. Harvey in a lot of her style and work, I don’t think Harvey would be willing to put herself out there on such a rather odd or bizarre subject.
The opening “I’m Not Into Being the Woman You’re with While You’re Looking for the Woman You Want” is a sparse, minimal indie rock tune that features some subtle guitar accents behind a big series of riffs. It’s a song that, while terribly simple, grows on you and finds you hook early on. Think of a cross between They Might Be Giants and Velvet Underground and this song becomes a bit clearer. The lyrics focus on a relationship that centers on each party stating their goals while the female tries to figure out “how to get his CDs back to him”.
Several of these songs are quite pleasing, in terms of their tone and Smith’s no-nonsense delivery. Partly singing and partly speaking the lines at times, a song like “Attraction Is Ephemeral” sounds like something Concrete Blonde might have put on wax. While knee-deep in indie rock, the horns off in the distance give it a great color as she refers to wearing a “Value Village bra”. The simplicity of the song allows you to concentrate on the lines, with Smith sometimes giving delayed harmonies. There is nothing spectacular about the lyrics, but Smith consistently makes the mundane routines of life dance with each word, whether it’s about taking the bus or the price of oranges. Meanwhile, the band picks things up tempo-wise with the guitar-driven “I’ll Call You” that keeps the tension without ever breaking into something larger or grandiose. But generally, Mecca Normal knows what works best — a slow but intricate tale that is near perfect on “1922”, which Smith explains on her own blog as being a song about a man in 1922 who “swaggers happily around his European estate”.
Fans of Lou Reed’s New York album would find a lot of similarities between this record and that one. But whereas Reed sometimes ups the “rock” ante on that record with “Dirty Boulevard” or “Busload of Faith”, Mecca Normal is quite content to rely on a simple but elegant groove while Smith waxes poetically. The lone exception to this norm however is the lengthy “Fallen Skier” that describes a first date. While keeping anyone’s attention over 12 minutes is a huge task, Mecca Normal succeeds easily. The same can be said for “His Own Madness” that just slightly busier in terms of instruments than “Fallen Skier”. But perhaps Smith outdoes herself with the vivid “The Dark Side of Maria”, which discusses certain members and their various appearances.
The lone miscue could be “The Caribou & The Oil Pipeline” that doesn’t quite measure up to the other tracks with Smith pushing her pipes, sometimes into territory that is stretching it at best. “Didn’t think I could write a hit about the Caribou and the oil pipeline/ Didn’t think I could write a hit but I had to try,” she sings, almost as if she knows it didn’t quite work. The title track wraps it up neatly, with Lester’s guitar style and Smith’s other potpourri of instruments coloring her stellar phrase coining. It’s a very basic, but beautiful piece of work.