Girl Talk and Rock
A pair of beer steins slam against the table top with mighty, consecutive thuds, and the meaty barmaid stalks back into the kitchen. Maybe the two women settled deep into the tavern's dank corner booth just don't look like big tippers, with their closely cropped hair, biker jackets, hand-rolled cigarettes. Maybe they look like they're having too much fun smoking and drinking in the middle of the afternoon. Or perhaps this unhappiest of happy-hour matrons thinks she's once again landed a couple of Silver Lake riffraff. She could be forgiven the oversight. With her trademark shorn locks, Johnette Napolitano is almost unrecognizable as the powerhouse behind the seminal L.A. group Concrete Blonde. And Holly Vincent, who spearheaded the seventies punk band Holly & the Italians as well as more recent aggregation The Oblivious, is more prone to thoughtful discourse on the trials of single motherhood and local public schooling than to rock-'n'-roll swagger at the local bar. "I just love this place," Napolitano beams, while Vincent, running late after picking up five-year-old Otis from preschool, murmurs shy apologies. The grudging waitservice might be enough to egg lesser lights in L.A.'s rock nobility into a round of petulant stein-tossing, but Napolitano and Vincent are not interested in playing prima donna. They are here promoting their eponymous debut album as Vowel Movement, a band that started as a birthdayparty gag, and then proceeded to take on a twisted life of its own. The duo's disjointed saga began shortly after The Oblivious was recruited to open for Concrete Blonde's 1994 tour. Stumbling on stage between sets to perform a tortured birthday ode to their tour manager, Vincent and Napolitano concealed their identities (and protected their reputations) by donning "the wildest, ugliest wigs you've ever seen. George Clinton would have been proud," says Vincent. Amazingly, the dime-store spy gimmick worked, and the pair went unrecognized -- the only catch was, they were blinded by mounds of white-blonde nylon and Napolitano unwittingly ended up standing two feet to the left of the microphone for the entire set. It was amatuerish, unintelligible, and willfully silly. And the audience went wild. Once Vincent stopped "feeling pissed off about this huge reception we got without even trying," she and Napolitano realized they were on to something. Napolitano booked studio time using her own money, a mandatory move in order to avoid the prying ears of record-company lackeys. And, while they left the George Clinton garb in the back of the closet where it belonged, they took their "silly wig" sensibility into the studio with them. "In three days we had the album half done," says Vincent. "And we had no absolutely idea what we did." Vowel Movement's short-term memory loss aside, it is hard to imagine the result would be anything less than unforgettable. Written, produced, and performed solely by the two women, the album is a joyous lo-fi explosion, rippling with inescapable hooks and molten guitar work. But, even as the infectious Ramones-style chorus of "Jesus" digs happily under the skin, and "I Don't Wanna" delivers a simple-but-bloody surf-punk uppercut, what stands out most is the almost audible sense of fun pumped into every track. Any woman who has ever had a gleefully drunken slumber party (and any man who has spied on one) will find familiar rhythms in Vowel Movement, dealing as it does in what Vincent labels "girlie stuff." But the music goes far beyond giggly dude-meets-chick scenarios, delving into deeper, darker territory. Vincent and Napolitano tear up tracks with a feminist roar, casually dishing up lyrics and guitar riffs for which many a rock god would commit unspeakable deeds. Ultimately, however, the album is really about the wicked good time women can have together when left to their own uncensored creative devices. Even the name Vowel Movement is less a pun on content (only "Death of a Surfer" could be considered a spoken-word track) than a simple salute to gross-out humor that the boys might have once considered their exclusive domain. When one considers that these riot-grrl matriarchs have weathered almost two decades in the local music scene and emerged not only intact but with an album as spirited and extemporaneous as anything the latest batch of baby punk wannabes has churned out, it seems some self-congratulatory crowing might be in order. Or maybe not. In the corner booth, the attitude is relaxed and off-the-cuff. This isn't a stodgy PR preachfest, but instead honest, simple girl talk. "Producing is really easy; anyone can do it. It's no big deal," demurs Napolitano, stubbing out her cigarette. The speed at which the album was completed (a total of six whiplash days and nights) is also lightly dismissed. "We've been doing this for a long time. You learn what you like, then you do it." Vincent nods, rummaging through her weathered backpack for a light. "We didn't even think we were making a record, really," she says. "At first I was critical of a lot of it, thinking, 'I wish I had done this or that better.' But now I'm comfortable with it. Some things do make me cringe, but I'm able to see the bigger picture." Their longevity in a notoriously fickle industry is also given a modest, if morbidly funny, spin. "A lot of the people who started out when we did are dead," grins Napolitano through a thick veil of bar-haze. Vincent shakes her head. "I don't know about that," she says. "I know so many people who've OD'd over and over again, but they're still around." She gives the phenomenon careful consideration. "I'm beginning to wonder if maybe they're just not doing it right." Delivered deadpan, her wit takes a moment to register before Napolitano dissolves into deep-throated laughter. As the conversation veers wildly among topics as disparate as ageism, Bjork, and Italian men, it is clear that the connection between Napolitano and Vincent is based on more than simple hours logged. (They met in the late seventies as waitresses in the same San Fernando greasy spoon.) As if they were still in the studio tackling tricky guitar licks, the pair tosses the conversational ball back and forth with surprising speed and the occasional unexpected spin. While it would be easy to riff on women's degraded role in rock, neither is interested. "I really can't complain," Napolitano shrugs. "I mean, the music business is a piece of cake compared to a lot of other things you could be going through." "Well, sometimes when you're an aggressive woman, people will call you a bitch and say you need to get laid," Vincent lobs back. "The bitch thing, that's true. But if you're good, it doesn't matter." Although Los Angeles is the backdrop against which much of their careers have been played, they easily confess to mixed feelings about their hometown. "It's hard being here," says Napolitano. "People are really cynical, and everything you do is eranalyzed." "Speaking as a parent," adds Vincent, "I'd really like to move, just because the schools are so bad." "Yeah, childhood in L.A. doesn't last very long," Napolitano agrees. "But it's a mistake to think you can escape the problems. Granted, the odds of getting a bullet to the head here are probably a little better than other places, but it's not [unique] to L.A." When it finally comes time to discuss future plans, the women of Vowel Movement pass up the usual chatter about tours -- there won't be one -- and new releases. Instead, Napolitano's eyes light up with wicked glee. "You know, I'd love to have a public-access show. Holly, we could do a Tech Talk show, just a bunch of microphones and speakers and us, like Home Improvement!" The L.A. rock icons proceed to crack up like high-school delinquents sharing cigarettes in the girls' room. The waitress casts a murderous, but completely ineffectual, glance in their direction. They're enjoying themselves far too much to even notice.