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Lest you think that female-fronted bands merging glistening Southern California pop and intensely personal lyrics with an aching vocal snarl started with Hole, think again. The Muffs' Kim Shattuck has been combining her tortured prose with sunny sounding punk-pop long before Courtney Love showed off her celebrity skin. When Love was still having her nose (the original one, that is) wiped for her, Shattuck was already a member of L.A.'s quasi-legendary Pandoras. Shattuck and guitarist Melanie Vammen left the group in the early '90s, enlisting bassist Ronnie Barnett and drummer Criss Crass to form the Muffs.
After releasing a handful of well-received singles, the group was signed to Warner Bros. in 1992 by producer Rob Cavallo (Green Day, Goo Goo Dolls). Although their brand of "thrashy bubblepunk" was (briefly) in vogue in the early '90s, the group's brilliant self-titled debut failed to catch on. As cool as the public response was to the band, their relationship with Cavallo turned cold even faster. Cavallo's taste for watered-down punk and shiny mainstream never seemed to jibe with the band's dyed-in-the-wool, old-school aesthetic.
In the meantime, Crass left the group and was replaced by former Redd Kross drummer Roy McDonald. Creative differences led to the departure of Vammen, reducing the group to a trio before they began recording their sophomore effort.
Although, as Shattuck says, the production on the first record was "done by committee," its follow-up Blonder and Blonder found the ever-vocal front woman asserting herself, and demanding more creative input. The production benefits significantly as the group finds its niche with carefully crafted pop-songcraft that doesn't attempt to disguise any of its rougher leanings.
"During Blonder and Blonder, I pretty much tried to boss the situation around. He [Cavallo] didn't want to have the guitars as loud and shrieky and scratchy as I wanted them. But later he went on to claim that it was his sound," says Shattuck.
The group's third album, 1997's Happy Birthday to Me, was another vibrant sonic and lyrical blast that fell on mostly deaf ears during music's post-grunge comedown. In a fairly common (but no less illogical) move for a major label, Warner Bros. told Shattuck and the band that they were basically abandoning the album before it even came out.
"They told us they weren't going to do anything for it. They actually gave us the option to go to another label, but I really wanted to just get it out because it had already been like two years since our last record."
Two more years (and their eventual departure from Warner/Reprise) followed before the release of their new album Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow, their first for Honest Don's M-M-Good Recordings, the poppier imprint of San Francisco-based punk indie Fat Wreck Chords.
Freed from the pressures of being a major-label act, the Muffs' new album sparkles with a sense of creative freedom, without completely abandoning the group's well-honed formula. Shattuck's scream, once her vocal signature, has been gradually eased out of her repertoire. Reaching its peak on Blonder and Blonder, her patented wail became noticeably less prominent on Happy Birthday to Me, and even more so on the new record.
It's an evolution that Shattuck feels comfortable with. "It's kind of a gimmick. Although I didn't do it originally to be that," says Shattuck. "It was just kind of the way I felt, and it was natural. It still is when I do it."
The shift away from the band's pulsating guitar spuzz is also evident throughout Alert Today. The waltz-flavored "Room With No View" is a welcome stylistic departure that finds Shattuck's biting vocals and scorn-filled lyrics dancing along to Barnett and McDonald's gentle rhythm ("I don't want you/Maybe you've noticed/Or maybe you're stupid"). The twangy '60s punch of "I'm Not Around" recalls Blonder and Blonder's "Red Eyed Troll" (which in turn echoes the Sir Douglas Quintet classic "She's About a Mover").
Shattuck is fully aware of the more delicate nuances the group has let seep into their mix. "It's more subtle," she says. "Well, subtle, period. We were never very subtle to begin with."
"My writing has been turning that way a little bit. Which is fine because I realized that lately I've been writing with an acoustic guitar and that totally makes you want to write little ballads and stuff."
Shattuck says the new album also reflects a conscious desire to distance the band from comparisons to the Ramones. Shattuck says she's grown tired of the association, which has become something of a critical albatross for the group. Beyond the obvious superficial similarities, the Muffs share few things in common with the legendary New York protopunks.
"Basically, we don't sound anything like them. People say that because they say we play three-chord rock, and I'm like, 'Wait, haven't they listened to anything that we've done? We're positively chordy.'"
While Shattuck finds the Ramones pigeonholing irksome, she freely admits that her intense listening tastes have colored much of her material over the years. The group's debut gives equal nods to the Buzzcocks and early Blondie, while a quick run-through of Blonder and Blonder reveals a heavy Kinks Kinkdom-era influence.