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The Muffs Grow Up

Photo by Kristen Shattuck

The most Peter Pan–ish of rock & roll music, punk rock faces an eternal conundrum: how to grow old gracefully, stroking those three (or four, or even five) perfect chords over frenzy and more frenzy. When one’s métier is “loud and snotty,” it stands to reason that “young” would still fit in that trilogy of pertinent adjectives. But if you’ve ever suffered through the umpteenth version of the U.K. Subs, or whatever antique hardcore band decides to grace us with an H.B. Strut down memory lane, you know aged punk and its adepts ain’t pretty.

Kim Shattuck’s Muffs, a vehicle for the screamin’ former Pandora, were never doctrinaire punk or even pop-punk, which is why they can get away with breaking the mold on their fifth disc, Really Really Happy. The Muffs’ assaultive early work used punkish energy and the chaotic liberation of mondo-distortion to cleverly disguise a purist’s sense of melody right out of the middle ’60s, but without the rigid trappings of a retro band. At this late date, Shattuck, bassist Ronnie Barnett and drummer Roy McDonald dispense completely with the kind of out-of-control roar that made their first gigs a revelation (and a mess), and replace it with a peculiar kind of honest grandeur.

“I wrote all of the songs from moods, to try to sort things out, instead of about specific things,” says Shattuck. “If I was up, the song would be up.” The old Muffs material, cheerful or miserable, always ran at full tilt. Freed from the constraints of punk orthodoxy, the record breathes, and the songs feel fleshed out, not bashed out.

From the precisely sung opener, “Freak Out,” through the unabashed love song “A Little Luxury” (from the singer to her husband, surely a sign of maturity, especially as it’s the most fully realized tune) to the upbeat title track, this is not the 1992 model by any stretch. While some might miss the quartet who punched out one another onstage at Raji’s, there is still much vintage Muffery, especially in the insanely catchy “The Whole World,” which works a bemused take on sociopathy similar to the Muffs’ first Warner Bros. single, “Lucky Guy.”

“It’s about crazy people in an institution in general, how they think the whole world revolves around them,” says Shattuck. “Some of the lyrics might sound jokey, like a Fountains of Wayne thing” — the song’s hook is about a kook in his underwear — “and Ronnie wanted to change that, but this is a serious song.” The disc’s token ’60s number is “Don’t Pick on Me,” a “She’s a Woman”–like Texas two-step that mines the same lode as Blonder and Blonder’s “Red Eyed Troll”; unbeknownst to the songwriter until our interview, the title is even a paraphrase from the latter’s lyric.

“Oops.”

All the same, the album is neatly made, not a wasted note anywhere. Which might be attributed to the odd circumstance of its recording, most of which was done in Shattuck’s Normandie Avenue one-bedroom. “We did the drums in a big room and then almost everything else in my kitchen,” Shattuck says. “My old place had really thin walls, and so I was kind of self-conscious at first, but I realized that my neighbors were assholes anyway, I hated ’em. The main problem was tracking vocals there, because of the ghettolike helicopters buzzing all the time — you can hear them in the back of ‘My Awful Dream.’ I had to keep that take because it was so good!”

 

Low-budget all the way, the disc was slowed up because the band’s mixing engineer was trapped for a spell in Lake Arrowhead by the rampant wildfires of last year. But it’s crisp, clear and careful, and its reflective outlook, in its own way, recalls its more ornate ancestors such as the last two Flaming Lips records and even the almighty Pet Sounds. This isn’t to say that the band have abandoned their bash-and-crash live sound or altered a great deal of their standard set list. “We’ll go all the way back to the old Sub Pop stuff, to ‘New Love,’ on this upcoming tour,” says Shattuck. “And lots from the second disc, too. The only song we fight over much is ‘Everywhere I Go’” — featured in a Fruitopia commercial, it’s a substantial source of the singer’s income — “not because of the ad, but because Ronnie hates that ‘Stone Roses late-’80s beat’ that it has. He’s still totally punk rock, still likes to fight over things like that.”

But Shattuck isn’t anymore, bless her heart. Growing up punky doesn’t have to mean you become a jaded, cynical rage merchant or a has-been with a paunch beneath a Schott Brothers jacket. It can mean that when you say you’re “really, really happy,” you mean it and put corresponding chords and beats beneath it without self-consciousness. And more likely than not, it connects.

The Muffs play Spaceland on Saturday, September 11.


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