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Stand-Alone Rock

Penny Dreadfuls
The Girls in the Band: The Penny Dreadfuls (from left, Chiméne Gonzales, Melanie Makaiwi, Andrea Sanchez and Anna Chaffee) believe in the collective process.

Photo by Dave Snow

All-Grrrl Penny Dreadfuls don't need any male mentoring, thank you very much

By Nicky Baxter

PENNY DREADFULS guitarist and vocalist Melanie Makaiwi is valiantly attempting to make palatable something she said a while ago to the effect that male and female musicians think differently, a claim that you'd think would rate fairly low on the controversy scale, right? Wrong.

"I've been getting ... I've been getting a lot of shit for that statement," she says, with a nervous laugh. "I think I, uh, touched a couple of nerves without getting to really explain what I meant." She explains now: "I think that ... being in the situation I was, it was true. It was very intimidating. I was 18, and I knew a lot of male musicians at the time who had this great knack for wanting to take you under their wing." Even, she implies, if you wanted to fly solo.

This sort of male-mentoring impulse was never an issue when Makaiwi played with girls. "It was all very much like each person for herself," she says, "and I felt like it was an open forum for creativity rather than kind of being intimidated or having someone show me what they think I should do."

Although she concedes that age might have played a factor--the girls were her age, the guys, somewhat older--she sticks by her feelings regarding the mighty male ego. "I personally have experienced that [ego-tripping] with some guys," she offers, almost diffidently.

In their eagerness to win a few points in the chivalry department, some men, she observes, go overboard with the paternal bit. "They think it's cute or something: 'Oh, that's great that you want to play music; let me show you what I know. Let me help you with this, let me show you that,' to the point where you want to say 'fuck off.' I'm gonna be fine on my own, you know?"

That said, the Penny Dreadfuls don't fit any expectation of a group of white, female twentysomethings. That is to say, they are not your average chick troupe, chirping their little hearts out for the boys; nor are they buying Madonna's boy-toy industry. And, Makaiwi's comment's notwithstanding, the band isn't stomping around reading sexist men the riot-grrrl act. They are just four women who practice equal rights like it was their idea in the first place.

SO FAR, the Los Angeles quartet is about as egalitarian as they come. Makaiwi and drummer Andrea Sanchez planted the musical seedling in high school, passing notes to one another about being in a band and later getting together to jam.

When the half-Pennys were ready to break out, they recruited bassist Chiméne Gonzalez and singer Anna Chaffee via a printed ad. The group-ascribed songwriting credits, along with the alphabetically ordered band-member listing on the press sheet, is a red flag that these young women are not trying to come with the same old top-dog act.

"We're all very much equal--equal songwriters, equal everything," the guitarist asserts. "We all have to have our equal say in everything." So doesn't that make it hard to get things done? "Well, yeah, 'cause, I mean, we're all really stubborn and hard-headed. We all definitely have our own opinions, so it's really the only way we can do it so we just have to battle our way through the things that are hard."

But, she adds, "we're all on the same track so we really don't have a lot of problems." In other words: Boys want to be No. 1; girls just wanna have fun. And rock our world.

Which happens in a large way with Penny Dreadfuls' self-titled debut album. The record is shot through with curve-ball pop smarts: left-of-center hooks, sinewy guitar and terse, cryptic lyrics about sons of queens and burning crayons.

In the Penny Dreadfuls' universe, guyville's very existence hinges on the band's fecund imagination. Indeed, in some instances, men are two-bit actors waiting in the wings as the action goes on without them. The first verse of "Man on Your Tongue" makes it explicit that this is not a man's world: "You, you disappear when/I, I looked hard enough at you/clutching tight to your/good-luck charm."

ARGUABLY THE ALBUM'S finest track, "Man on Your Tongue" is a sterling illustration of how Penny Dreadfuls go about carving out their vision. The song is all aswirl in Day-Glo neopsychedelia, flaunting the fact that Pennys are lady Jane's Addiction enthusiasts, from front to back.

Makaiwi's cawing wah-wah guitar is derived straight from former Jane's Dave Navarro's hip pocket, though he's just part of the sonic landscape she stakes out for herself. Funky and loose-limbed, the rhythm section spreads itself out around the guitarist, freeing up Makaiwi to unleash a barrage of fuzz-toned chords or arrange oddly sculpted single notes.

If "Man on Your Tongue" represents the album's peak, "Sooner or Later," "Sucked Dry" and "Try It On" aren't far behind. The only complaint here is Penny Dreadful's relative brevity, a mere 36 minutes--and that includes the album's "hidden" track, the aptly titled "Monster." D.C. Herring, who has twisted knobs for Throwing Muses and Cracker, among other indie acts, wasn't given a tubful of loot to work with, so there isn't a lot of studio mischief, just four girls making cool noises.

And as Makaiwi maintains, they do it equally well, though it must be mentioned that as pissed as the Pennys get at being compared to other female artists, vocalist Chaffee sounds remarkably like Go-Go girl Belinda Carlisle reincarnated as a real rocker.

This is not to suggest that Chaffee is a copycat; the human voice is a limited instrument, after all. Influences and natural happenstance aside, what it comes down to is this: The Penny Dreadfuls are not in the business of biting anyone else's style, female or male. They want people to listen to their music with fresh ears.

The Penny Dreadfuls and Three Mile Pilot play Tuesday (Oct. 15) at 9pm at the Agenda Lounge, 399 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $3. (408/287-4087)

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From the October 10-16, 1996 issue of Metro

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