Graded on a Curve: Penelope Houston, Birdboys

San Francisco’s The Avengers were one of the USA’s great punk bands. They not only rocked with intensity and imagination, but through the talents of vocalist Penelope Houston made it clear the California wing of the punk gestalt wasn’t just a boy’s club. And that’s the achievement for which she is most celebrated, but Houston has also worked outside the punk rock paradigm in a solo context. Birdboys, her 1988 debut under her own name is a fine record that’s deserving of far wider appreciation.

The Avengers made some great racket in their original incarnation from ’77-’79. While extant they were responsible for one of the finest of the Dangerhouse singles in the “We Are the One” 3-song EP, but the rest of their fine initial discography appeared post-breakup, a circumstance that helped to keep them fresh on the minds of those attuned to punkish affairs for a good long while after their too brief creative spurt.

Well, that and the band’s rep as openers for the Sex Pistols’ legendary last gig at San Fran’s Winterland. Toss in a production credit by the Pistols’ Steve Jones and the esteem of worthy punk theorist Greil Marcus, and The Avengers shape up as one of the enduring pillars upon which the pre-hardcore American punk experience sits, registering not as a group that was destined for a short existence due to youth, snot, and barely being able to hold it all together, but instead as a fully formed and confident expression of the music’s vast potential. And so much of their sturdiness came right down to Houston’s impressiveness as front-woman.

This is why the band’s reformation in the ‘90s was no great surprise. That decade found Houston and original guitarist Greg Ingraham touring and recording new material with replacement members to a solid response, an activity that’s continued right up to the very present. And while it’s surely cool that Ingraham is a member of the reformed lineup, it’s basically a plain fact that without Houston there would be no reason for The Avengers to exist in the here and now.

For along with Alice Bag of The Bags, Exene Cervenka of X, Dianne Chai of The Alley Cats, and Lorna Doom of Germs, Houston is one the great Cali-punk women, helping to diversify the young movement in gender terms and make it much more than just a stylistic reinvention. But it’s not like she was just resting on her laurels and waiting around for the right time to recommence The Avengers. She was out there doing some things.

After the breakup she lived for a bit in Los Angeles where she collaborated on film and video with The Screamers, one of the greatest of that city’s art-punk acts. Then she hopped the ocean to merry olde England, ending up in the circle of Buzzcocks/Magazine principal Howard Devoto and contributing to his 1983 solo LP Jerky Versions of the Dream. Soon enough she was back in California, figuring in the punk musical Population: 1 with ex-Screamer Tomata du Plenty.

And in 1988 she issued her first of many solo works with the album Birdboys for the San Francisco imprint Subterranean. Its appearance came at an interesting time, for by that point most of the early American punks had chosen one of a few generally crummy avenues; to disappear, to just up and die, or to run a far less interesting version of their initial vision deep into the ground. Truly engaging punk rock is almost always a finite thing, and for those on the US West Coast, a locale where the music never gained much of a commercial foothold anyway, the window of opportunity was additionally shortened, in some cases slammed shut, with the emergence of hardcore. It’s bad enough to be uninspired, but to also be out of date is a circumstance especially unfortunate.

But there was another way, one that Birdboys essays to fine effect; simply change, adapt, and broaden the scope. Houston’s solo debut is essentially a folk LP, and a legitimate one, not an attempt at genre hybridization or subversion. And yet it possesses direct energy, sturdy backbone, and modesty of scale, surely remnants of punk lessons well learned, that help to differentiate it from the much of the more highfalutin neo-folk stuff that was making a big splash during this period ala Suzanne Vega or Edie Brickell.

But there were also different influences at play. While so much neo-folk stuff derived its sound from the rather predictable sources of Bob, Paul, or Joni, Houston had fallen under the sway of prime British folk, particularly the late great Sandy Denny, which at the time of Birdboys arrival was still a bit of a delicacy in the States, Nick Drake having yet to sell his first luxury car from beyond the grave. And this Brit inclination results in a music that’s far more about establishing moods and atmospheres than it is concerned with relating statements and scenarios or proffering bold lyrical imagery.

That’s not to imply Houston isn’t a fine lyricist. She has many words on Birdboys, often great ones, and what’s more, she’d gathered enough maturity that she never strains to prove it. Plus, while the twelve songs here add up to a sum that’s unequivocally her album, it’s also a work of admirable collaboration and often an exercise in full band communication that makes for a consistently rewarding, well-rounded listening experience.

Opener “Harry Dean” finds Houston’s vocals accompanied by strumming acoustic guitar, prickly mandolin, and a fat, lithe upright bass. It’s a brisk number, and its co-writing credit to Greg Ingraham (who doesn’t play on the album) presents the distinct possibility that it was initially conceived from within a more punk framework. If so, the musicians here have revitalized it into a crisp and airy yet propulsive number, one that ultimately gives little clue to Houston’s past as an aggressive sonic disrupter. Plus, the song’s almost certainly a tribute to a certain celluloid thespian, the one who played GTO’s passenger in the masterful film Two Lane Blacktop. How downright erudite of her.

“Talking with You” shifts the mood to the pretty and melodic, with guitarist Pat Johnson’s engaging in a fine, highly developed vocal duet with Houston, the song’s execution matching her considerable ambitions for the album. And “Voices” adds some well-integrated accordion and finds Houston’s singing smartly multi-tracked in its chorus, just one of many intelligent production choices by Phillip “Snakefinger” Lithman.

“Living Dolls” conjures a welcome intensity that in no way interferes with Birdboys’ folky (but not folksy) aura, and Steven Strauss’s acoustic bass lends some jazziness to the otherwise Brit-folkish vibe of “Out of My Life.” This touch of jazz appears elsewhere on the record and to tasteful effect, wisely avoiding any beret wearing, finger snapping, phony-beatnik attitudes. It’s basically in the tradition of jazz vet Chuck Israels’ work on folk mainstay Dave Van Ronk’s very cool No Dirty Names from ’66, though the albums have aims that are in the end quite different.

To elaborate, “Waiting Room” actually recalls some of the later Paisley Underground stuff, finding Houston not far from the attractive sensibility of Kendra Smith. And another positive quality is the general brevity of Birdboys’ songs, Houston seemingly having no desire to linger upon and lessen the effectiveness of her creations, surely a lesson learned from punk but one that’s also applicable to the acoustic approach she offers here; upon consideration, more people should take a tip from Penelope. And “Wild Mountain Thyme” combines just the right amount of lilt, groove, bluesiness, and polish, adding further depth to an album of already impressive range.

“Putting Me in the Ground” finds Johnson’s vocals returning for some sing-along sophistication, and Kevin Donahue’s accordion locates its best moment in the scheme of the LP. From there “Full of Wonder” provides another revealing glimpse of Houston’s punk background, with both the song’s structure and the spark of its delivery making it very clear that the composition could be easily transformed into a raucous stomper. But it also stands up perfectly well in this formulation, as does “Summers of War” and especially Birdboys’ excellent closer, the torchy “Stoli”, featuring just bass, piano, Houston’s reliably strong voice, and brief additives of squeezebox flavor.

It wraps up what’s in full a very accomplished and undersung album. Birdboys was the first of a slew of solo recordings for Houston, but I’ve not heard the subsequent work, in part because of its scarcity in record shop bins but also due to the general lack of discussion over her output outside of The Avengers; I get the vibe that in the solo context Houston is somewhat of a regional artist. And that’s a bummer. But I did grab this one shortly after its release and having done so has always made me feel like a smart cookie. It’s a safe bet that anyone who searches out a copy will feel the same.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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