Musique Boutique: Junkshop Britpop, Bessie Jones, and MORE

Welcome to Audiofemme’s new monthly record review column, Musique Boutique, written by music journo vet Gillian G. Gaar. Every fourth Monday, Musique Boutique offers a cross-section of noteworthy reissues and new releases guaranteed to perk up your ears.

It was the summer of 1995, and the cool kids were dancing to delicious pop treats by the likes of Elizabeth Bunny, Powder, and Velocette. Wait a minute — who? Don’t be surprised if those names don’t ring a bell. These artists didn’t really make much of a splash outside their native UK, where their record releases were mostly confined to singles. Which is what makes Super Sonics: 40 Junkshop Britpop Greats (RPM) such an enticing collection of undiscovered treats.

Britpop was the UK’s answer to grunge, trading in the melancholy wash of the latter for something that was bright, sparkly, and above all, British. It had the catchiness of British Invasion pop, the stylishness of glam, and the sarcasm of punk. “Junkshop” refers to another source of musical inspiration: thrift stores, where those in search of recordings off the beaten track could find all manner of oddities awaiting discovery in the record bins.

Mix it all together and who knows what’s going to come out? It’s how you got numbers like the swaggering “Rough Lover” by Posh, which has Pippa Brooks ticking off said lover’s attributes with caustic relish, set against a jagged, heavy rock beat. Or the giddy good fun of “Come out 2 Nite” by Kenickie, which has singer Lauren Laverne reaching out to encourage you to join in: “We don’t have time to be sad/Come out tonight, you’ve got to grab it/If you want to have it.” Or the power pop/new wave drive of Heavenly’s sweetly sarcastic “Trophy Girlfriend.”

It’s especially fascinating to see the musical cross currents in evidence. The vibrations of riot grrrl jumped the Atlantic and were picked up by Huggy Bear, and their fiery punk is perfectly distilled in “Her Jazz.” You can also hear echoes of UK new wavers the Au Pairs in the track, the same rawness and dissection of sexual politics, the kind of anthem that demands to be played loud. “This is the sound of a revolution,” Niki Elliott pronounces as she claims new territory for her generation: “This is happening without your permission/The arrival of a new renegade/Girl-boy hyper nation!” It’s exhilarating.

The revolutionary zeal of riot grrrl was later mainstreamed into the less anarchic “Girl Power” of the Spice Girls. But Super Sonics reveals that they weren’t the first group to capitalize on that phrase. That honor was left to Shampoo, a lively UK duo formed by Jacqui Blake and Carrie Askew when they were still in school. “Girl Power” (“We might look sweet, but we wanna be sour”) was in fact the title track of their third album, but Super Sonics features an earlier track, the boisterous “We Don’t Care.” It’s a kind of playground chant of defiance, that starts out deceptively quiet, then explodes into a whipsawing beat as Blake and Askew celebrate the excitement of being young and being alive.

And that’s not even mentioning the brooding pop of Linoleum (“Marquis”), Showgirls’ concise depiction of the pleasures and perils of a crush (“So Small”), or Bis’ edgy love letter to a heroine (“Keroleen”). There’s a raft of great stuff to explore here, so dig in.

Also out this month:

Mary Elizabeth “Bessie” Jones was born in 1902 in Georgia, and grew up surrounded by the sound of music. “The parents, they would give quiltings, and they would have songs they would sing while they were quilting … And we would have egg crackings and taffy pullings and we would hear all those things — riddleses and stories and different things.” She heard stories of the past from her step-grandfather, a former slave. Every member of her family sang or played an instrument, or both.

Jones eventually settled in St. Simons Island, Georgia, where she joined the Spiritual Singers of Coastal Georgia. In the early 1960s, noted ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax recorded Jones with the Spiritual Singers, and Get In Union (The Alan Lomax Archives/Assoc. for cultural Equity) features 60 of these profoundly moving songs.

The opening track, “Sheep, Don’t You Know the Road,” sets the tone. Jones takes the lead in this gentle call-and-response: “Don’t you know the road by the praying of the prayer?” “Yes Lord, I know the road.” It feels like a welcome, an invitation to come in and make yourself at home. The folk, spirituals, and gospel songs are mostly performed acapella, with the occasional handclap or guitar for accompaniment. It helps keep the spotlight Jones’ rich, warm vocals, and the impressive harmonies of the group, as in numbers like “You Better Mind” and “O Mary, Don’t You Weep.” There’s a fun 35-second ode to preparations for the next meal (“Gator”), and Jones shines in her solo numbers, “Got to Lie Down,” “Go Wash in That Beautiful Stream,” and “Diamond Joe” in particular. It’s uplifting music that feels especially suited to these troubled times.

This digital only release, available on Bandcamp, is an expanded version of the 2014 CD release of the same name, featuring previously unreleased material.

Megan, Rebecca, and Jessica got their start as the Lovell Sisters, who released two albums of country music bolstered by their great harmonies. After that group disbanded, Megan and Rebecca came together as Larkin Poe (named after their great-great-great-grandfather), and took things in a solidly rock direction, though a distinct Southern flavor remains (born in Georgia, the sisters are now based in Nashville).

Their latest, Self Made Man (Tricki-Woo Records), gets off to a rousing start with the title track (the title slightly amended to “She’s a Self Made Man”), a bold, hard rocker, that has Rebecca in full battle cry on lead vocals, and Megan making an equally searing contribution on lap steel guitar. And that’s just the start in this rollicking journey that’s drenched in Southern gothic rock, and steeped in the blues. Blind Willie Johnson’s “God Moves on the Water” is given a modern spin, now referencing other disasters as well as the Titanic, as in Johnson’s original; “Holy Ghost Fire” burns with a fraught intensity; the upbeat “Easy Street” looks ahead to better days with foot stomping optimism. Rebecca told AJC that the band’s songs were written specifically to work well in live performance. So you can look forward to some sizzling shows by Larkin Poe once live concerts make a welcome return to our lives.

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