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A Punk Returns to Make Bay Area Pop 

Wednesday, May 21 2014
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In March 2013, Tenderloin bar Aunt Charlie's hosted a rare event. Not one of the usual glamorous drag galas, but a rock show booked by Jess Scott as a farewell before her move to New York. Scott carried over gear from her practice space next door at Turk and Taylor, rigged up a rickety PA, and distributed copies of her Make-a-Mess fanzine to everyone who passed through the door. To enter the bathroom, bar patrons surmounted tom-toms and amps. Once the secret gig was stiflingly packed, Scott led her newest band, Flesh World, through abraded pop songs spiked by solemn leads from guitarist Scott Moore and throbbing backbeats from Diane Anastasio. Then U.K. indie-pop act Golden Grrrls played an unannounced set. The night bore the taste for pop music presented in a punk context that distinguishes Scott's work. The revelry was dimmed a bit, though, because everyone knew that the night's conductor was moving away.

Her departure turned out to be only temporary. Scott found it difficult to commit to new projects, and was distracted by a gnawing suspicion that ending Flesh World was a mistake. Ever since her earlier band, Brilliant Colors, entered a period of inactivity, Flesh World had best embodied her guiding mantra of punk and pop music made by punks. "I thought, 'Why am I moving to New York and L.A. and not doing Flesh World?'" she remembers.

The band's songs reconcile fury with neatness. Moore's incisive guitar leads are softened by melodic resolutions; the harshest feedback finds Scott's voice turned from trenchant to wistful. The black clamor and bravado of "Sturdy Swiss Hiker" contrasts with "Lost My Heart in Transit Thru the Post," which disintegrates into breathy longing and bittersweet atmosphere.

As for punk pedigree, Moore hails from the seminal queer hardcore band Limp Wrist, and Flesh World's debut EP appeared earlier this year on underground English punk label La Vida Es Un Mus. On the cover, "Flesh World" is set in severe Old English lettering atop a grayscale photo of two frowning men on a scooter. At first, the music seems to clash with the packaging. Eventually, though, little details on the cover reveal a duality between toughness and sensitivity, hard and soft, just like the songs contained within. One boy actually clutches a flower in his mouth, gripping the other's thigh with his free hand.

Now 29 years old, Scott grew up in the East Bay, attended Mills College, and started her first band, Brilliant Colors, with Anastasio and Michelle Hill. Its debut EP appeared in 2008. With concise gusts of glistening guitar chords and understated vocals, Brilliant Colors attracted the prominent Brooklyn imprint Captured Tracks. But the label's indie-rock audiences were too far removed from the underground camaraderie Scott appreciated in the Bay Area. "It was always such a bummer to play cities where only 'pop' people came out," she says. "If there isn't a toothless maniac who only listens to Finnish hardcore, but sings along to [Brilliant Colors'] 'Should I Tell You,' then I'm just bored." That perspective, along with the music's thrifty production and restraint, aligned Brilliant Colors better with the Berkeley label Slumberland, which released its two albums. Slumberland's catalog is full of musicians boldly fusing punk's rigid independence and scrappy urgency with a penchant for saccharine hooks.

Scott also used Brilliant Colors as a platform to share her affinities as a fan, and to hone her visual aesthetic. The cover art for its 2010 7-inch, "Never Mine," mimicked the jacket of a 1980 EP by Desperate Bicycles, an obscure and idiosyncratic English pop group known for self-releasing records and imploring other bands to do the same. Scott's own art for Brilliant Colors records used minimal illustrations and collapsing letters, often treated to the controlled decay of a photocopier.

She brought that avid fandom and attention to graphics to Make-a-Mess, the tiny record label that issued debut albums by local figureheads White Fence, Grass Widow, and Rank/Xerox. Founded by Eric Butterworth in 2007, Scott came on board in 2010. Make-a-Mess was an outlet for their friends' music that focused on individual releases, rather than its own brand. Some releases don't even bear the record label's name, but Scott's ethos courses throughout the discography. Make-a-Mess' last release was Get Shot, a book of photography by Martin Sorrondeguy, vocalist of storied hardcore bands Los Crudos and Limp Wrist. As a document of his lifelong immersion in the punk scene, it's an apt bookend for Make-a-Mess — a visual love letter to punk to cap a discography of shimmering love songs by punks.

This April, Flesh World played its first local show since Scott's return. Beforehand, she sat down in Aunt Charlie's and, much like a year earlier, prepared to haul her gear out from Turk and Taylor next door and load it into a cab headed for the Hemlock. She praised the standard doubles poured by the familiar bartender, as if she'd nearly forgotten them. San Francisco is a maelstrom of change, but it's still the best place to challenge genre orthodoxy, Scott says — still a haven for "filthy fucking punks who love anything for $5 at the door."

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Sam Lefebvre

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