Out There

Out of the Woods

Tongue
Penelope Houston
Reprise Records

Hers is one of the most confounding careers in the history of rock and roll, from punk to orchestral folkie to pop-rocker to sorta-punk once more. She's an Avenger from way back, when she was a 19-year-old buzz-cut screamer in 1977 fronting one of the most astonishing--and forgotten--bands ever to run the Sex Pistols out of San Francisco. Yet not a single Avengers record remains in print, save for the just-released odds-and-sods collection The Avengers Died for Your Sins on Lookout! Records, and it merely hints at the vengeance and roar. When you listen to the disc's live tracks, all you can think is, "Gee, guess I had to be there." Houston turned to folk music in the 1980s--something about adding space and silence where once there had been only mayhem and anarchy. And again, just one of the seven discs she recorded as a folkie remains in print, 1996's Cut You, made up entirely of "new" versions of her hard-to-find "old" songs. Not a bad thing, only a sad one, since 1993's The Whole World is an astonishing record in its original form--loads of sing-alongs and string-alongs. Guess that's what happens when you become a star in Germany but can't get a gig in your homeland.

Tongue is something of a step backward musically, a return-to-dyed-roots that finds Houston working with Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong, the Go-Gos' Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey, and Mr. T Experience bassist Joel Reader--all of whom strive to bring out the inner punk still lurking within Houston. The result is the sort of record Aimee Mann makes every couple of years and sells to the devoted handfuls; that is, when Tongue doesn't sound like Celebrity Skin outtakes. (So what if Houston did it first? Not like anyone else knows that.) In other words, drum machine instead of live drummer every few tracks, synth replacing the clarinets and French horns of the early solo records, and grit where once there was nothing but crystal clarity.

Not that Tongue's a bust. The title track's a brazen come-on-baby, told from the perspective of a woman "sitting, smiling, thinking of your tongue"--how much she'd like to suck it, if only you'd let her. And no one's ever put so much hatred into a song ("Scum") so sweet; you can see the revenge plastered across her face like a smile when she coos, "You're the scum of the earth / You're the worst mistake God has ever made...You're the one that I hate." The problem is a song like "Things" (co-written with Caffey and Wiedlin), which sounds like something Belinda Carlisle would record--bland, generic soft-alternarock. And it almost sounds like a moment of weary defeat ("I know I've had my day"); this ain't the woman who sang, when she was 19, "I believe in me." Still, the disc is almost worth it for the strings-and-things song about a crazy girl named Happy Friday who dreams of a "mouth full of Tiger"--as in Tiger Woods. How, well, gross.

--Robert Wilonsky

 
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