Penelope Houston

Eighteen Stories Down

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Houston's 26-year career has, until recently, been at odds with prevailing trends. As the greatest female punk singer ever (and one of the best, period), leading San Francisco's storming Avengers, she became renowned in her own country long after their demise as a punk icon, an inspiration to countless indie rockers. That side of her reputation was solidified by the Lookout! retrospective Died for Your Sins, which included a reunion of Houston with Avengers' guitarist Greg Ingraham to re-record some old songs no decent recording existed for -- and a handful of triumphant 1999 shows where it was just amazing to hear her singing that stuff again! All the more amazing, because that was such a short period of her life, 1977-1979, and she's been the "queen of neo-folk" ever since. Like her close friends the Dils, who went country as Rank & File, she'd clearly had enough of loud, vicious, electric guitars, and as hardcore beckoned, she went in the opposite direction to stay creative. This resulted in a sporadic string of pretty acoustic folk LPs, where her lyrics remain her strong suit, but she sings quietly in clear and full voice rather than tunefully bawling. Unfortunately, these LPs barely sold in the U.S. or only came out domestically as German imports, since she's better appreciated in open-minded Europe. (In America, her music is too folk for punks, but songs such as "Glad I'm a Girl" are too challenging for wimpy folk fans.) Which sadly means this long-deserved best-of is also a German import, on a major label! However, it is attainable right from the singer at the below web address. Get past the opening re-recording of the Avengers' "Corpus Christi" by the 1999 lineup (with huge fan Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day sitting in for Ingraham, who'd left the Avengers before the original was written and recorded, anyway), as it's a one-off punk classic red herring. (Though it does show, for those who missed the gigs, how well she still sings the '70s stuff, even having not used that voice in 20 years!) The remaining 17 songs span from the spacious, mandolin, string bass, and accordion blueprint she began with on 1988's Birdboys ("Voices") to the more effective roots-pop Americana -- with drumming reintroduced -- she's done since, starting with 1993's The Whole World ("Sweetheart") and 1994's Karmal Apple ("Ride"). The CD ends on the soulful watershed of 1998's really lush, much deeper production of Tongue (the absolutely gorgeous "The Ballad of Happy Friday and Tiger Woods"), as well as a string of brand new songs that show she's actually doing her best solo work now. These four include the sweet "Flight 609" and a moving, piano-led version of John Cale's 1971 American Western history lesson, "Buffalo Ballet." If anything, Eighteen Stories Down is not only the best Houston LP post-Avengers, but it is also best enjoyed by programming it to run backwards, counter-chronologically. After a career that admirably ran counter to courting such affection, and years of refining her folk-pop craft, the eventual emergence of today's softcore, folky-pop records, from Elliott Smith to Kristin Hersh, shows how (once again) ahead of the curve she was and remains.

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