This whatever it is -- part folk opera, part cowboy musical, part performance art, part novel, memoir, and farce -- is the creation of an Austin singer/songwriter named Jo Carol Pierce, many of whose high school pals a long time ago in west Texas (Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Terry Allen, Joe Ely) have gone on to some note. But this is the 51-year-old Pierce's recorded debut, the soundtrack to a theater piece-cum-song cycle she calls Bad Girls Upset by the Truth. The framing story is a distaff coming-of-age tale -- a girldungsroman, if you will -- in which a young woman named Jo Carol grows up and out in Lubbock in the 1950s. Is this autobiography? The story is true, Pierce allows, but not literal.
The album alternates perhaps a dozen songs with about as many monologues. For the music, Pierce's expressive but twangily unpolished voice courses above a doting and smart acoustic backup combo that proffers boogie, country, balladry, rock, and this or that small speaking or singing part with casual aplomb. The songs are almost uniformly sophisticated stunners, from romantic but never sentimental ballads to wacked-out, deeply profane novelty numbers to Dylan-esque song poems. Through the songs and the monologues, Pierce tells the story of her corrosive and bawdy adolescence, an epic, sometimes hallucinogenic tale populated by appalled friends and parents, doting prairie dogs, a hapless suitor named Joey, UFOs, appearances by various celestial figures, and by the narrator's own count no less than 157 sex acts, all of it told with zinging one-liners ("Jo Carol," wails Joey, "why do you think they even call it premarital sex? What are you going to call it if you don't get married afterwards?"), a complex system of metaphor and thematic manipulation, and a theatrical canniness that turns minor moments -- a teen-age girl getting baptized, Joey dragging an engagement ring across a windowpane to prove that it's genuine -- into hushed and powerful drama.
Yet all of these, however diverting, turn out to be mere devices in a larger scheme. One hates to make this case too strongly; this greatly humorous and colorful tale is not didactic. But buried in Pierce's tall tales and unabashed hedonism are more than a few sobering undercurrents: shadings of female suicide and mental illness for one, but also the twin specters of conformism and intolerance, particularly in the area of religion, whose distrust of pleasure Pierce finds both incomprehensible and incorrect as a matter of theology. Her prescription -- never quite stated but plain if you pay attention -- involves obvious things like love and less obvious ones like rock 'n' roll and sex. Embrace them, she seems to say: If God didn't want us to, why did he give them to us for free?
-- Bill Wyman
"Weird Al" Yankovic
Bad Hair Day
(Rock 'n' Roll/Scotti Bros.)
I cannot tell a lie: I have in the past, and probably will in the future, laughed at "Weird Al" Yankovic's jokes. So sue me. But I'm also adult enough to realize that juvenile humor is the most relative form of art in existence -- my "hilarious slapstick" may well be your "dumb fat guy running into a wall" -- so make of the following what you will.
Bad Hair Day is probably Al's funniest album since his, ahem, classic "Weird Al" Yankovic in 3-D more than a decade ago (featuring, of course, the gourmandish Michael Jackson takeoff "Eat It"). The filler may amuse you if you like songs about watching "Ernest" movies in your underwear or are excited by adolescent postmodernism (I wasn't particularly, but then who am I to deny Al the chance to make like Fred Jameson?); it's funnier than Adam Sandler's filler in any case.
But you listen to Weird Al for his parodies, and it thus pleases me to announce that he executes three pretty good ones here. Sure, his U2 rip "Cavity Search," lifted from "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me" (the chorus goes "Numb me, drill me/ Floss me, bill me"), misfires, and the TLC parody "Phony Calls" ("Waterfalls") is only about half as funny as it should be. Al is on the mark, though, with "Amish Paradise," whose pop-Gothicism suits this paean to simpler ways. "If I finish all my chores and you finish thine/ Then tonight we're gonna party like it's 1699," Al raps.
Like any good satirist, he punctures the inflated and brings the pretentious down to size; his "Alternative Polka," taking a blithe hop, skip, and jump from Beck to Nine Inch Nails to Soundgarden, points out along the way that, gee, "Bang and Blame" sure sounds like it means something when Michael Stipe snarls it. Then there's "Gump" aka "Lump" ("He never feels too dumb because/ His mom always told him stupid is as stupid does"), which actually rocks. And if you don't smirk when Al chirps, "But you're still alive," while sideswiping "You Oughta Know," you need to grow up. Not a bad showing at all; give a copy to a friendly 10-year-old and then ask to borrow it.
-- Jesse Berrett
The Sunshine Club
Visit to a Small Planet
The name is something of a misnomer; the Sunshine Club isn't exactly a light and cheery bunch. The members are a group of musicians you may have chanced upon in other configurations; Sean Coleman (guitar) is refugee from Farmgirl, and Paul Comaskey (drums) has been setting skins for the Hairdressers among others. They are joined by Simon Colley on electric and string bass and vocal linchpin Denise Bon Giovanni. It is her aching voice that brings the album together, the countrified songs coming at you from roughly the same directions as Tarnation's. She also takes up the guitar, Moog, and saw on the album; with these, the band gives a modern twist and a San Francisco feel to the traditional whining country sound, though I imagine it's a long time since wind has blown tumbleweeds up "Steiner Street," as that track seems to suggest.
Melancholy and loping, the bass and the brush-stroking drums drive the album along, a dramatically understated setting for Bon Giovanni's emotive singing. Tracks like "Happy/Sad" and "Mayboleen" are given plenty of space to breath. "Rainy Day Friend" is spiced with a gentle hit of Moog and twanging guitar. The tempo is always slow and unhurried, giving the songs a timeless quality; there's no frenetic activity, just the melodies gently easing their way into your mind. "The Look of Love" temporarily places the group in a jazz club complete with trumpet solo, but they are soon back out on the porch, sipping their whiskey and looking for twisters. There is also a hidden acoustic ditty at the end of the album; "You can shine if you want, little superstar," Giovanni sings, and you want to believe her.
The Sunshine Club plays with Lilyvolt and Steve Packenham Wednesday, May 29, at Slim's, 333 11th St., S.F.; call 522-0333.