Penelope Houston exploded onto the San Francisco scene with the Avengers, a loud, powerful band that was widely considered among the best of the city's '70s punk scene. The Avengers played regularly at the Mabuhay Gardens and opened for the Sex Pistols at Winterland before band members went their separate ways. Houston reinvented herself as a singer-songwriter, and while her projects since have been largely acoustic, she never lost the intensity of her artistic vision or her desire to confront the contradictions of American society.
Over the course of six solo releases, Houston has created an impressive body of work, with albums that showcase her wide-ranging musical influences and songs that deal honestly with both the intimate and the political. She was a riot grrrl in the '70s and an Americana artist long before the genre was codified. "I don't know about being ahead of my time," Houston says. "I feel like I'm outside of time, but that's useful if one is a social critic, and I'd define myself as that. Hopefully, my critiques are presented in a way people can relate to, from the outrage of the Avengers to the subtlety of the solo albums."
Houston's new album, On Market Street, still finds her looking at the truths many try so hard to avoid. The album shows off her diverse tastes with an all-star cast of local players, including Pat Johnson on lead guitar, Steven Strauss on upright bass, drummer Dawn Richardson, and Danny Eisenberg, who adds soulful textures to the album with his Hammond B-3 organ. The album embraces Memphis soul, rockabilly, moody German cabaret music, and closes with a couple of low-key rockers. As always, the spotlight is on Houston's voice, which still conveys nuanced emotion with its understated intensity. Standout tracks include "Scrap," a T. Rex-flavored romp; "Meet Me in France," a quiet, wrenching portrait of the grief engendered by hopeless love; "USSA," an ironic celebration of conspicuous consumption; and the title track, which presents touching vignettes of the homeless men and women whom Houston sees on Market Street on the way to and from her day job at the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library.
"It took seven years to write these songs," she says. "I was going through some personal tumult that resulted in divorce, so that was the touchstone. It's a break-up album and deals with personal and universal crises. There are funny songs, but most of them are blue and emotional. You would think by the time someone reaches maturity, they'd know what happiness is and how to find it, but you have to find it where you can, with whom you can, and within yourself."
Houston will be touring to support the new album, as well as the May release of a two-CD Avengers compilation that will make the band's entire recorded output, including the long out of print Pink Album, available for the first time. How does it feel to sing those youthful anthems 35 years later? Houston chuckles. "It's surprisingly natural. As soon as the music starts, my brain goes back to the moment the songs were created and it feels pretty right. It's a great release as well. For a long time, I didn't do any Avengers gigs, and I missed the opportunity to scream at the top of my lungs. These days, I do it regularly — it still feels good."