Published Sep 16, 2014Currently entering their third decade as a collaborative force, the Vancouver art-punk duo of Jean Smith and David Lester maintain their stubbornly idiosyncratic approach to indie-rock minimalism on their 13th album as Mecca Normal. Smith's careening, artless vocals remain the band's most startling feature, technically limited yet elastic enough to shift between oddly comforting on the near-lullaby "Wasn't Said" and deeply unsettling on the nightmarish ten-minute centerpiece "Between Livermore and Tracy." Still, Empathy for the Evil is strongest when it allows Lester's rudimentary, yet melodic, chugging guitar rhythms equal prominence with Smith's performances, rendering tracks like the manifesto-like "Art was the Great Leveler" and the stark folk ballad "One Man's Anger" among the most satisfying on the record. Even better is "What's Your Name?" owing to its momentary broadening of the band's sparse sonic palette courtesy of moaning saxophone squalls.
Somewhat less successful are the ambitious lyrical compositions that make up most of the album's second half. Many of the words here come from two novels recently completed by Smith, and the attempts to translate prose to lyrics are visibly strained. The two songs that close the album comprise separate parts of an extended narrative that never become quite as vivid in song form as they may have appeared on the page. Likewise, "Normal," a potentially affecting portrait of a child's embarrassment over his oddball family, feels too literal, with Smith falling victim to the creative writing trap of telling rather than showing, while "Naked and Ticklish" gets downright perverse with a story of coitus interruptus in the form of her lover's intrusive Rottweilers. Empathy for the Evil, then, counts as only a partial success, but this long-running band's uncompromising vision remains admirable even when the results are decidedly uneven. (M’Lady’s Records)