Thursday, April 24, 2014

Duff Review: The Meow Meows "Somehow We Met"

Killer Ska
Limited edition color vinyl LP on Jump Up Records, 2014

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Somehow We Met, the fantastic Prince Fatty-produced second album from the Brighton, UK female-fronted The Meow Meows, brims with so much originality and brilliance that you'll want to run out and thrust it into the faces of all those who dismiss the contemporary ska scene as a tired, uninspired revival of a revival of a revival (since this album handily refutes all of these unfair criticisms). While other ska bands have mixed in elements of fuzzy garage rock and sunny 60s AM/girl group pop into their sound (I'm thinking of you, Deltones!), not many have done it quite like this. The Meow Meows' music is firmly rooted in 2 Tone and modern ska (as represented by The Toasters circa their Thrill Me Up album), but the songwriting is so fully and uniquely their own that their sound also manages to defy the genre's boundaries. Don't get me wrong, Somehow We Met is a ska record through and through (that the ska faithful will love!), but it's one that even the ska haters just might be chagrined to find themselves liking.

While there are some nods to their musical predecessors and established ska conventions--see the song "Rude Girl's Gone To Jail," a tip of the hat to The Specials' "Rude Buoy's Outta Jail" that contains some Roddy Radiation rockabilly guitar licks and "England's Over," which is critical (in the 2 Tone fashion of decrying social and economic injustice) of the policies (in this case, the tripling of university fees) of "Coalition England," which is comprised of the Conservative Party led by Prime Minister David Cameron, who is an acknowledged fan of the despised "Stand Down Margaret" Thatcher, and the Liberal Democrats, led by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg--The Meow Meows blaze their own trail with songs that convey strong emotions and tales of sticky situations (often about relationships, as well as female sexuality and desire), but whose underlying meaning or true message are sometimes opaque to everyone but their composers.

A perfect example of this is the fantastically buoyant and groovy "Disaster! Disaster!" The singer is clearly in a terrible psychological state, but we're not given any insight as to why she's so alienated and pessimistic --and what from her past is tormenting her. Yet, we can all relate to this mood: "Don't try to talk to me today/There's people all around me/And I'm feeling strange/Just look left, look right and run away/Up and down the street, it's a strange escape/Disaster, disaster as I'm walking down the street/Disaster, disaster the only thing I see/Think faster, think faster, these ghosts that follow me." Another intriguing track is "Rude Girl's Gone to Jail," which is about setting an undefined something in motion that goes horribly awry, as well as trying to fight an adversary when the odds are very much stacked against you: "So I find my last working matches/And I start a fire/And they said they understood/But it was a lie/They ran away, they're gonna run around town/They're gonna burn it down now/They got a lighter, they're gonna fight her/Oh, but they burned, they burned it down..."

The sad and haunting "Milton Keynes" (a reference to one of the planned communities or "new towns" that have been built in the post-WWII UK--think Levittown, LI or Celebration, FL here in the USA) appears to be about becoming disoriented in the blandness, the sameness, and the boredom of a place and discovering the urge to escape it. You can easily imaging the reggay-ish "Banknote" being covered by Prince Fatty's incredible singer/collaborator Hollie Cook, but I'm not certain whether or not it's concerning the shedding of one's obsession with money and casting off its control over us (not a bad message in these terribly greedy, new Gilded Age times).

Things are more discernible when we enter the realm of romantic love and sex. "Just Too Young" (the title, intentionally or not, brings to mind The Specials' "Too Much Too Young" and the song has lyrical echoes of The Beat's "Walk Away") is about the woman extracting herself from a relationship with an emotionally stunted guy that has put everything into perspective for her ("Thought I was a creep and a fool/'Til I ran into you/And saw the things that you do/Now I see I'm not so bad/The definition of mad/has a picture of you"). The all-out late 60s pop of "Do Anything"--the only non-ska track here--is a powerful, catchy, and almost deliriously happy (now that the singer's free!) kiss off to a man who's done her wrong. "If You Were My Boy" is a sweet and lovely mid-tempo ska song (despite being complete unrealistic!) about pining for a guy that would set everything wrong right: "Nothing to drink the pub dry for/No need to start World War Four/No need to kick the bathroom door/...If you were my boy." The resigned "(I Don't Know Why) I Love You" is an honest look at how we don't mean to hurt the ones we love, but we do--and that there often isn't a good explanation for why we keep loving people within painful, complicated relationships ("So, let's make a promise/To never let it go/At least 'til the next time/We get back together/Forever/Whatever").

"WhyWhyWhy" is an ecstatic ska 'n' soul expression/celebration of pure female lust (which will make you want to get up on your feet and dance, amongst other things), while "Might as Well Be You" verges on ska-rock/punk with a tale of an almost monstrous, all-consuming female desire for flesh, sex, and inflicting damage: "Slipping through trees/And reaching the street light/Oh, please don't keep me waiting/Running in silence, and hoping for violence/I'm sick of hibernating...I can track you down and make you go down/The road or the river, your liver for dinner/I've got the taste of chase now." (All she needs are some fava beans and a nice chianti!)

One of the best songs on Somehow We Met is "Siberian Soup," The Meow Meows' kick-ass tribute to Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist punk rock collective that is actively opposed to President Vladimir Putin's anti-women and anti-LBGT policies (and what they perceive to be the Russian Orthodox Church's complicity); several members of Pussy Riot were tried, convicted, and sentenced to two years for their 2012 protest/performance in Moscow's main Russian Orthodox church, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, and they became a cause celebre around the world (I just saw Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina interviewed on Bill Maher's show last night). While The Meow Meows singers stage a minor, personal riot of their own ("Take my clothes off and I put my lipstick on/Kick my legs in the air and I start/Singing your song"), what they really hope for is someday to have the same type of courage as the women in Pussy Riot: "Take your place now, to play the gig of your life/A rainbow coloured angry thorn in his side/I wish my words were even half as true/Wish once in my life I'd be as brave as you!" They want some of whatever inspired and fortified them to demonstrate in the first place and emotionally/psychologically sustained the Pussy Riot members during their hard time in separate gulags...

The Meow Meows' name might refer to the slang for Mephedrone (a plant food that can also be used as substitute for Ecstasy, according to the Urban Dictionary), but what they really are on Somehow We Met is a revelation. I highly recommend this record!

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The Meow Meows are:

Danny Noble: vocals
Hanna Mawbe: vocals
Claire Ellis: tenor sax
Emma King: alto sax
Matt Ellis: trumpet
Alex D. Hay: keys
Danny Ashcroft: guitar
Ian Mackenzie: bass
Matt Gale: drums

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