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Speaking in 'Tongue'

[whitespace] Penelope Houston From Shriek to Sleek: Penelope Houston has reinvented herself for the '90s.

Punk-rock Avenger Penelope Houston talks about her new neofolk album

By Gina Arnold

PENELOPE HOUSTON'S sky-blue hair doesn't look amiss in Herbivore, a trendy vegan restaurant in San Francisco's Mission District. But it might alarm potential listeners to her new record, Tongue, a work that cuts across the folk, rock and alternative genres and has nothing to do with her punk-rock beginnings.

In person, Houston looks like what she is--one of the Bay Area's most respected punk-rock legends. But close your eyes and she sounds like a strong yet sensitive female singer whose music captures what it's like to be a thoughtful person in the late '90s, a singer who could easily appeal to fans of Alanis, Jewel or Shawn Colvin.

The dichotomy is not entirely unexpected, however, since Houston has long been one of the more independent-minded artists in the Bay Area rock scene. The hair has to do with her "other" band, the Scavengers--a semireunited version of her first band, the Avengers, which played two shows here last week to promote The Avengers Died for Your Sins, a new collection of Avengers B-sides, live tracks and obscure songs from the '70s that's just been released on the local Lookout label.

The Avengers were a seminal San Francisco punk band that opened for the Sex Pistols' last show at Winterland and produced one self-titled record. But that was 21 years ago. Unlike other artists of that era--Jello Biafra, for example--Houston doesn't feel hampered by her punk beginnings. She shed the shriek ages ago, morphing into what she likes to call an "acoustic" artist.

First with her band the Birdboys and now alone, Houston polished her singing and songwriting skills, perfecting in the process a quirky, quiet type of music known as "neofolk" in Germany. The sound is one that features folky instrumentation--mandolin, strings and Houston's own instrument, autoharp--to flesh out the lyrical but aggressive point of view that Houston excelled at in the Avengers.

It is a sound that has always been more popular in Europe than here, but that may change with Tongue, Houston's second record on Warner Bros. and second domestically released solo offering. Tongue is actually much less folky than her previous work. Instead of strings and autoharp, songs like "Scum" and "Crushing" use a more alternative-rock sound to get across Houston's thoughtful, smart and sexy lyrics.

"Fanzine people are always accusing me of hating punk rock now," Houston says. "But that's not true. I just don't do it. I just do Penelope. Anyway, it seems like there are two kinds of punk rock. And there is one kind--the serious, political, fast, three-chord kind--that I am not interested in anymore. That wasn't even what the Avengers were like at the time. It was more goofy than that."

HOUSTON IS, of course, older than Madonna. But she looks much younger, which is an important point in the image-conscious world of major-label rock. In many ways, her oeuvre recalls that of Sheryl Crow.

The difference is that Houston has the cred that Crow merely covets. Crow's past is riddled with studio musicians, publicists and beauticians, a bevy that she somehow translates into well-crafted songs about acid trips and juke joints.

The romantic reality, as lived by Houston, involves art school, obscure records and endless European tours--as well as a lot of work for a very little recognition. Although something of a legend around San Francisco, Houston's had trouble with both timing and labels for more than a decade. Some of her best records haven't come out in America, while many a major label hasn't figured out quite where to fit her into the scheme of things.

Her last, seven-week tour of the U.S. saw her playing sports bars in Nebraska to nobody and swearing that she'd never do so again. And her last single from Cut You was actually marketed to the adult contemporary market. "I mean, come on!" she says. "I'm not Celine Dion!"

Tongue is certainly likely to beguile fans of Lilith's fare, who will enjoy midtempo rock songs that aren't about conventional, womanly subjects. They'll also like Houston's strong, confident presence on stage and her utter lack of pretentiousness.

But perhaps most surprising of all is the amazing song "The Ballad of Happy Friday and Tiger Woods," a haunting and poignant tale of nursing-home patients who are trapped in useless bodies but still have active mental lives. The song was inspired by a visit Houston paid to her father two years ago, just after he suffered a stroke.

"There was a woman in a bed near him called Happy Friday," she recalls, "and I thought that was a great name, and I'd somehow only just read the name 'Tiger Woods' that morning as well. The song is about people with strokes or disabilities and how I really hope that they have really strong, powerful imaginations to live in instead." The song is only one manifestation of that experience, however. According to Houston, her father's stroke was a wake-up call. "I realized that it was time to just get a move on and not waste any more time ... and at the same time, to slow down and do it right," she explains.

Houston owed a record to Warner Bros. at the time, which she got busy on, cutting herself free from her band and recording it as a solo artist. At the same time, she began assembling material for the Avengers collection--in many cases, via various connections on the Internet.

In 1996, her record label had hooked her up with Green Day songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong, already a big Avengers fan. The two of them hit it off and wound up collaborating on two songs. One, titled "New Day," appears as a bonus track on Tongue.

The other was originally slated to appear on an episode of Lois and Clark. After that show was canceled, the song got slotted into a new collection of music for the TV show Friends--which as yet has no release date. "It's probably my only chance to get one of those plaques for my wall," Houston says with a laugh, referring to the plaques given for gold and platinum albums. "But I don't mind that kind of thing anymore. I'm more excited about this record than any of my others--it feels a lot more like me."

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From the March 18-24, 1999 issue of Metro.

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