Tuesday, September 28, 2010

For a Song: Stoli

Penelope Houston: Stoli


In the first wave of punk music, The Avengers were somewhat unusual for having a female lead “singer”. Of course, singing is not the right word. The band roared away, with the blaring guitars in your face, and it was the job of Penelope Houston to roar the words right along with it. There was absolutely no evidence that she could actually sing in anything like a musical way. (You may be able to tell that punk was never my thing.)

Many punk bands flamed out rather quickly, breaking up and then disappearing altogether. When this happened, some of these bands attained legendary status. My sources tell me that this happened to The Avengers, but it meant nothing to me. But this story has an odd twist. Penelope Houston resurfaced in 1989 with a solo album. Birdboys was the title, and that was when I learned all of this back story. I read the reviews articles, and the writers were having trouble picking their jaws off the floor. Penelope Houston had completely reinvented herself, and she was a great singer, so they said. By then I knew that this kind of adoring press would mean that the album was either great or terrible. And remember, Houston used to be a punk, and I don’t like punk. So, I picked up the album with a certain amount of trepidation. Remember, you couldn’t listen online first in those days. And you may ask, what happened?

Soon enough, it was my jaw on the floor. First of all, nobody told me this was a folk album. And man could she sing! She also used combinations of instruments that I had never heard before, and made them work. All in all, she gave a clinic on how to inhabit the emotion of a song in a creative way without oversinging. And then, as if a bonus was needed, the album closed with Stoli. This is as perfect an example of a torch song as you are ever likely to hear.

Also in 1989, I discovered another amazing female singer who used interesting, mostly acoustic settings to convey emotions beautifully. Her name was Sarah McLachlan, and I think you know how that story turned out. But, If you have never heard her album Touch from that year, go and give it a listen when you’re done here.