Full disclosure: Over the past decade, Vancouver duo Mecca Normal has contributed a weekly feature to MAGNET’s website. Every Saturday, we post an illustration by guitarist David Lester, accompanied by text from vocalist Jean Smith. Personal epiphanies, labor/social history, gender politics—they’re all on the table, or at least on your screen. And the same can be said for Mecca Normal’s music.
When Smith and Lester first played together in 1984, they blew minds in two ways. First, Smith’s words confronted the listener with uncomfortably acute observations about the way things are. Second, a lot of people couldn’t get their heads around the idea that a rock band might not have a rhythm section. A lot has changed since then, and people are generally a little more open to notions about what a rock band needs in order to rock, but even then it was pretty self-evident that they didn’t need anything more than Smith’s succinct imagery, her elastic voice and the chugging blasts of Lester’s guitar to do so. This is still true today.
But along the way, Mecca Normal’s been open to other ways of doing things. After all, why refuse one box only to put yourself in a box of your own? So for a few years, the duo became a three-piece, aligning itself with New Zealander Peter Jefferies. For a few albums, he variously produced, played piano and drummed. (Along the way, he and Smith started another band called Two Foot Flame.)
This is the edition of Mecca Normal that you’ll hear when you put your needle down on the transparent green wax of Brave New Waves (Artoffact). It captures the trio in concert at The Cabaret in Montreal in 1996, ripping through songs from throughout Mecca Normal’s career. Smith is in fine form, ranging freely from abstract imagery and musicality to messages and sounds that are as concrete as a building block sailing through your window. Lester, who never really needed a drummer’s help, proves adept at locking into Jefferies’ gut-punch grooves. And Jefferies, who had spent the years before his Canadian sojourn collaborating with a who’s-who of the New Zealand rock and beyond-rock underground, finds ways to complement the careening wildness of Smith and Lester’s interactions without reining them in.
One caveat: While this performance is pretty essential, it represents one phase of Mecca Normal’s long and dynamic history. So consider getting the CD—or at least using that download code—to hear the bonus tracks of the core duo blasting through a 1993 session at a Montreal radio station for a taste of that wildness in concentrated form.
Listen to Brave New Waves below, and also check out the Smith-directed video for “Armchairs Fit Through Doorways”