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Suspicious Minds 

Wednesday, Jul 10 1996
"I was born with a peanut for a brain/ 'Cause I'm a dumb head/ I'm a stupid little girl." So sang Ginny Arnell, badly, in 1963. A few songs later, on the second disc of Growin' Up Too Fast: The Girl Group Anthology, things get worse. Insipid drip Lesley Gore confesses that "Sometimes I Wish I Were a Boy."

Blasphemy! Gore -- who sings by herself not because of any solo-career talent but probably because no real girls would be caught dead singing with her -- even warrants her own torturous double-CD set, It's My Party, as part of a bunch of new girlie Mercury reissues. (Granted, Gore steps out of character to moan through the actually OK "You Don't Own Me," but that doesn't make up for her other 51 dum-dum ditties.) Growin' Up, despite its enticing premise, turns out to be a collection of mostly white-bread, Phil Spector-lite love songs by long-lost groups like the Secrets and the Pixies Three. All you really need is The Best of the Shangri-Las. When the Shangri-Las are at the mike, you can forget about limp little I'm-a-peanut-brain scaredy-kittens. They tell you what they think by shouting it out loud. "When I say I'm in love, you best believe I'm in love, L-U-V!" lead singer Mary Weiss hollers on the way into "Give Him a Great Big Kiss." But it isn't just their bad-rep bite, their go-all-the-way harmonies, or even their motorcycle gang-size attitude that distinguishes the group from their wimpier white contemporaries. What sets the Shangri-Las apart from sinister suburbanites like Gore is the way they stare hard into the face of darkness and disappointment. Things can get literally messy, what with all the blood, body parts, and corpses lying around their beautifully morbid streets. Why they never sang about falling in love with a chalk outline is beyond me.

The Shangri-Las inhabit an imperfect world of consequence. Thanks to songwriter/producer George "Shadow" Morton's graveyard aesthetic, theirs is a booby-trapped planet of regrets, fuck-ups, misunderstandings, and accidental death. "Lookoutlookoutlookoutlookout!" they warn the beloved "Leader of the Pack" before his fatal crash. The rape victim of "Past, Present and Future" can't stomach the thought of being touched again. Jimmy's and Mary's parents in "Give Us Your Blessings" refuse to attend their wedding; the young couple perish in a car wreck when their tears block "the sign that read 'Detour.' " A prodigal daughter "can never go home anymore" even though she wants to, because her poor, sweet mother died of a broken heart waiting in vain for her return.

And still there are bright and balmy love songs, because twisting the night away with pathos doesn't preclude dancing "close, very very close" with eros later on. Since the cute boys keep getting killed off, some of the suitors appear only as apparitions, but that doesn't sway the woman "Dressed in Black" from going steady with her one and only ghost. The fact that the Shangri-Las are so obviously jinxed makes you glad they get a break every now and then and find breathing, good-bad-but-not-evil beaus they can hang with.

At first, it was a meaningless, unplanned CD-changer collision: Team Dresch's Captain My Captain, Disc 2; The Best of the Shangri-Las, Disc 3. They're both girl groups, yes, but how can you compare a perhaps proto-feminist, matching outfit-wearing, hetero quartet of New Yorkers who didn't even write their own songs to punk rock dykes of the Pacific Northwest who have seized the means of production by releasing their own collaborative records on labels they own?

Team Dresch's music is deeply human -- throbbing with both candid frailty and fuck-you strength, unpretentiously accessible but absolutely uncompromising. If young women of the past used girl-group music to serenade each other in bedrooms with hairbrush microphones, Team Dresch makes the courtship public, calling for sites where "girls can meet each other's stare." For all their politics, they're still one of the most romantic bands around.

Listening to one record end and the other one begin, leaving the straightforward poetry of the Team's Kaia Wilson's voice and falling into Mary Weiss' dramatic web, is only a jump in sound. In terms of exploring what's complicated, in celebrating love despite evil, in facing violence and reconsidering family, the two groups speak to each other. They shoot the shit across miles and decades in such a way that one can only feel privileged to live so late in the century, when technology gangs up with happenstance to let you love the Shangri-Las' flirty sass two seconds after thrilling to the raw, collective honesty of Team Dresch: Now that's what I call girl talk.

By Sarah Vowell

About The Author

Sarah Vowell


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