To judge from the steady stream of announcements on her Web site, Penelope.net, you'd think Penelope Houston has kept herself pretty busy of late. The '70s punk icon and sometime folkie now has a "loud" rock band and a shiny new album, The Pale Green Girl, in addition to the just-released The American in Me, a live document of her old punk band, the Avengers, from a 1979 show at SF's Old Waldorf.
Furthermore, Houston's career retrospective, Eighteen Stories Down, came out last summer, an all-covers EP Snap Shot surfaced in October, and a month later came Zero Hour, featuring the same Old Waldorf Avengers show on white vinyl for an Italian label. But on a particularly hot Oakland afternoon at a cafe a few blocks from her Rockridge home, she explains that the five records she's put out in the last year don't necessarily make her all that prolific.
"It's kind of sleight-of-hand," she says. "Two of these records came out in Europe, and one came out here, but I spam people as though I have a new record every time something comes out. This record, The Pale Green Girl, was finished over a year ago, and I offered it to Warner Bros. in Germany, who had put out two of my albums, and they said, 'Well, we really like some of the songs on here,' and I said, 'Great! Put it out!' They said what they really wanted to do was a best-of, and they'd take songs from this record. They offered me an advance, so I said yes. I just needed the money to pay for all the recording that I'd done."
It's a very different time -- and a very different Penelope -- from when engineers used to sneak the Avengers into recording studios after hours for free, though the four 1978 studio tracks on The American in Me can take you right back where she started. Before the Avengers broke up in '79, in only two years they'd become the Bay Area's first punk legends: They opened for the Sex Pistols at Winterland, and several times the Dead Kennedys, DOA, and X opened for them. Houston went on to a long solo career of alternative, largely acoustic pop, armed with an autoharp, a silky murmur, and acid-yet-literate lyrics. She went electric again with a vengeance on her '99 album Tongue, experimenting with beats and guest appearances by Billie Joe Armstrong and two Go-Go's. But the album proved less than lucrative for her then-label Reprise, and since then she has been on her own, putting out various odds and ends online. "Every year or so I think, 'I have to put something out, what will it be?' she says. "And someone will say, 'We want this Avengers stuff,' or 'Put out some live stuff,' and I'll say okay and put something out. But to actually go in and record a whole record takes me five years."
Indeed, her latest record may have been a labor of love, but it involved a long and difficult labor. "I had to assemble a new band for every recording session," she says. But I could only afford to record about three songs at a time, so Pale Green Girl has me and [guitarist] Pat Johnson, and kind of a rotating cast of bass players and drummers." Since then, she and Johnson have assembled a more steady band featuring Mike Theriau (Dave Gleason's Wasted Days, Mover) on guitar, Ned Doherty (Mushroom) on bass, and John Hofer (Persephone's Bees, Mother Hips) on drums. "It's the loudest band I've had for maybe five years," Houston says happily.
It's funny, because Girl isn't a particularly loud album; instead, it concentrates on some marvelously catchy songs, notably "Walnut," a Brill Building-tinged number that gets points just for featuring a baby, baby, baby, baby chorus in this day and age. The record's twee and dreamy pop, complete with sweetly murmured vocals, is perfectly suitable for lazy summer days, but a sharp edge creeps up now and then, just when you're getting comfortable. It's less a love-at-first-listen thing than it is something that deepens and grows on you.
The Avengers record, on the other hand, is all edge -- as loud and fast and fucked-up as punk rock was supposed to be back when it was still punk rock, with songs fascinating for their sheer piss and vinegar. "It was kind of a corporate club -- it had rarely ever had punk bands play there," Houston recalls. "This was our third-to-last show; we knew we were gonna break up. Anyway, it all seemed very un-punk rock to us, so you'll hear me say things between songs on this recording like, 'The tables are for dancing on,' because we were so pissed off that this club had so many goddamned rules. I would harangue the audience pretty regularly in the Avengers days. Not now -- I'm really nice."
Just as she did when she cobbled together The Avengers Died for Your Sins from old bootlegs and released it on Lookout! back in '99, Penelope will mark the release of this new record with a gig at 924 Gilman Street with the ScAvengers, a semi-reunion featuring longtime guitarist Greg Ingraham, bassist Joel Reader of the Mr. T Experience, and Danny Panic of the Groovie Ghoulies (not to be confused with Danny Furious of the Avengers). But though she had fun singing "The American in Me" with the reunited Mission of Burma at Austin's South by Southwest music conference back in March, she says this'll be it on the Avengers front for a while.
"Basically, these songs are 25 years old, you know," she says. "It's not my interest. My interest is the band that I have now, which doesn't have a name, although Penelope Houston and the Unrepentant Drunks was one that I thought was fitting. Or the Cranky Band, or Penelope and the Steve McQueens -- which I like, but some of the band members feel that 'McQueen' will be taken wrong. So yeah, Penelope's Band -- Penelope's Loud Band -- is what I want to work on, but we probably won't play that often, so if people miss these shows coming up, they won't be able to see us for a while."
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