MECCA NORMAL "The Observer" Kill Rock Stars SHOPLIFTING "Body Stories" Kill Rock Stars

Friday, May 5, 2006

MECCA NORMAL"The Observer"Kill Rock StarsSHOPLIFTING"Body Stories"Kill Rock Stars

BEGINNING WITH Mecca Normal's self-released debut, Jean Smith has been relaying dispatches from the gender wars. For the Vancouver duo's new album, "The Observer," the singer and multi-instrumentalist did front-line research: She entered the world of online dating, returning with such anecdotes as the 13-minute "Fallen Skier" and "I'm Not Into Being the Woman You're With While You're Looking for the Woman You Want."

With Smith accompanied only by guitarist David Lester, the band sometimes produces tracks that are little more than free-verse readings. The only egregious example of this on "The Observer" is "The Caribou & the Oil Pipeline," which goes off topic to condemn U.S. plans for pumping in the Arctic. Elsewhere, Smith's reflections are smart, funny and -- more often than not -- yoked to music that's spare but inventive. Lester's wiry guitar interlaces with Smith's singing, which is supplemented by her own keyboards, sax, guitar and multi-tracked vocals. In their austere way, such songs as "To Avoid Pain" are positively catchy, even if Smith seldom employs a hook that forgoes bite. The sprightly chorus of "1922," for example, is "he's a jerk/he's a jerk/he's such a jerk."

Among the British post-punk bands whose styles are being revived right and mostly left, Delta 5 is often invoked but seldom emulated. So it's a reasonably bold touch for Shoplifting to open its first full-length release, "Body Stories," with a sinuous, bass-heavy song that could have appeared on Delta 5's one and only album, which was released in 1981. Most of the other tunes follow the same template, although "Untrust/Trust" has a whiff of Fugazi, but the resemblance to the female-led Delta 5 is most obvious when drummer Hannah Billie's vocals are more prominent than guitarist Chris Pugmire's. Whoever's singing, "Body Stories" is a lively, engaging album by a band with excellent taste. Perhaps on the Seattle quartet's next album, these virtues will enable Shoplifting to find its own way.

-- Mark Jenkins

Appearing Thursday at Warehouse Next Door with Cataract Camp.

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