By Eleni P. Austin
A couple of weeks ago, July 17th to be exact, would have been Kim Shattuck’s 59th birthday. Sadly, she wasn’t here to celebrate herself, she passed away in October 2019, following a two-year battle with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). Only family and close friends were aware of her struggle, which was a hereditary condition.
Even though she wasn’t here, I celebrated for her. I pulled out my Pandoras’ Stop Pretending” LP and followed up with the first three albums from The Muffs: the self-titled debut, the brilliant sophomore effort, Blonder And Blonder and 1997’s Happy Birthday To Me, I closed out my tribute with their final masterwork, No Holiday, which was released a couple of weeks after she split the scene in October 2019. I was sad at the beginning, but really, it was impossible to remain blue while listening to the boinging and buoyant, endlessly inventive Garage-y Power Pop Punk music. She was with me, I felt, in spirit.
Born in 1963, Kim spent her childhood in Orange County before relocating to Los Angeles in her teens. She was immediately drawn to L.A.’s flourishing Punk scene. (Stage) diving headfirst into the action. She quickly became smitten with The Pandoras, the all-girl Garage/Psychedelic band that had begun making a name for themselves. Although Kim played only guitar, when the band was looking for a new bassist in 1985, she bluffed her way in.
Learning on the job, she caught on fast, as is evidenced by her contribution to the Pandoras’ melodic Psych masterpiece, Stop Pretending. By 1990, the band moved away from their signature sound, veering into Metal territory. She quit in 1990, following the dismissal of keyboard player, Melanie Vamen. Kim had amassed an arsenal of original songs and joined forces with Melanie, who had recently taken up the guitar. The pair recruited bassist Ronnie Barnett and drummer Criss Crass and voila! The Muffs were born. Following the release of a couple of indie singles, they signed with Warner Brothers Records.
Their self-titled debut arrived in 1993. A deft amalgam of jagged Punk and fizzy Pop flavors it was immediately embraced by critics, and the band’s already intensely passionate fan base. Unfortunately, the public at large missed the boat.
At the time, Grunge was having its moment in the sun. Pale, flannel-clad boys had concocted a turgid cocktail that blended Black Sabbath sludge and Black Flag aggression. They momentarily cornered the market on adolescent angst. Still, a few musicians were paying attention to The Muffs’ frothy mix of Punk and Power Pop.
A year after their debut, new label-mates Green Day enlisted The Muffs’ producer, Rob Cavallo and adopted a poppier sound, achieving commercial lift-off with 1994’s Dookie. Meanwhile, Courtney Love and her band Hole seemed to co-opt Kim’s aesthetic sensibility, sui generis vocal style and instinctively hooky melodicism, folding all those elements into their mega-selling sophomore effort, Live Through This. So, The Muffs never graced the cover of Rolling Stone (big whoop), the band put the pedal to the metal and went on to create an indelible body of work.
Despite Cris and Melanie’s departure following the first album, The Muffs soldiered on. Initially, local legend Jim Laspesa subbed behind the drum kit, but by the time they were heading into the studio to make their second album, ex-Redd Kross drummer Roy McDonald had joined the fold.
Pared down to a trio, they released Blonder And Blonder, a kaleidoscopic blast of fuzz, shag and sunshine, in 1995. A few months later, the band’s profile was raised exponentially when they covered Kim Wilde’s ‘80s anthem, “Kids In America,” for the Clueless soundtrack. Their final record for Warner Brothers, Happy Birthday To Me, arrived in 1997.
By the turn of the century, Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow was released via Honest Dan’s Records. 2004’s Really, Really Happy arrived through the auspices of Five Foot Two Records. In the ensuing years, a couple of compilations, Hamburger and Kaboodle surfaced.
In between Muffs commitments, Kim made time to play in two other bands, The Coolies and The Beards. In 2013, The Pixies asked Kim to assume bass duties, after Kim Deal had quit the band. Within six months, she was dismissed. Apparently, her ebullient attitude clashed with the band’s tight-assed (ahem, dour) demeanor. Apparently, stage-diving and crowd surfing is frowned upon in serious Punk Rock circles. Oh well.
Kim didn’t skip a beat, reconvening Ronnie and Roy in 2014 for The Muffs’ sixth album, Whoop De Doo. (The title was apparently inspired by her Pixies experience). Not only was the album critically acclaimed, it also reached #32 on Billboard’s Heatseeker chart. The band toured on and off until Kim’s ALS diagnosis.
Their final album, No Holiday, was recorded piecemeal, over an 18-month period, scheduled around Kim’s health issues. Still, it sounded cohesive throughout. Released a couple of weeks after she died, it served as a sweet parting gift. A fitting (albeit unwitting) elegy. The rough edges remained, along with her wicked sense of humor and keen melodic sensibility. The cool kids at Omnivore Recordings have been re-releasing expanded versions of Muffs music since about 2015. The latest in this lovingly curated series is their stellar fifth effort, Really Really Happy. The album originally arrived in 2004, via Charlotte Caffey and Anna Waronker’s Five Foot Two Records. As usual the Omnivore crew have added a surfeit of bonus tracks and demos.
The record kicks into gear with three blistering cuts that blast out of the speakers with a supersonic crunch. On “Freak Out,” downstroke riff-age is quickly supplanted as Ronnie and Roy crash the party with knotty bass lines and a walloping backbeat. Kim’s trademark growly vocals are out in front, and she wastes no time letting someone know she has, um, feelings, that are beyond her control; “I don’t care what you think of me, go to hell, I’m wanting you to know I tell the truth, but something inside me freaks out anytime I think of you, anytime and I think I’m going to die.” The song closes with a ringing guitar chord that echoes the exuberant opening note of the Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night.”
“A Little Luxury” explodes with a propulsive drum salvo before settling into a mid-tempo groove. Beneath the bravado, Kim allows a little vulnerability to peek out between thrashy guitar riffs and tensile bass lines, as she reveals; “I need a little luxury, put your arms around me and I’ll feel better naturally.” Stacked, Girl-Group harmonies shadow her scratchy voice on the bridge before she unleashes a spiky guitar solo.
Across a teeter-totter arrangement, Kim uses the title track to offer up a declaration of independence. Jaggy guitars partner with sling-shot bass and a pummeling rhythm as the opening verse finds her mid-conversation; “And I don’t care what anyone thinks about me, I’m not afraid of what you say or do, it doesn’t hurt me, I’m telling you.” Despite her deadpan delivery, the chorus works hard to convince us that she’s casual and carefree; “I’m really, really glad and really, really, really happy and I’m feeling good, I’m really, really glad and really, really, really happy and I’m feeling good, I’m feeling free and nothing’s bothering me.” A swivel-hipped guitar solo oscillates on the break, as tandem drums and bass walk a tightrope across the taut melody.
Right from the jump, The Muffs exhibited a Punky melodicism that completely outstripped peers like Green Day and Hole. By the time of this, their fifth album, they had perfected that Power Pop/Punk paradigm. Every track on this record truly swings, but several stand out from the pack.
Take “Everybody Loves You,” a Fuzz-crusted, Bubblegum-cruncher, powered phased guitars, agile bass and a tick-tock beat. Brittle lyrics confront a recent ex, while attempting to maintain a measure of equilibrium; “On the way out I could see ugly little me, and I’ll say that I’m crushed as crush could be, you messed me up you see.” Woo-hoo harmonies add to the angst but the heartache is nearly camouflaged by the buoyant melody.
“My Lucky Day” puts the power back in Power Trio. Search-and-destroy bass lines connect with stripped-down guitars and a brawny backbeat. Kim’s gritty vocals pogo through the jittery arrangement as she puts another erstwhile swain in his place slyly confiding; “Run away to a place that I love where I hide away from you and your old face, telling me that you know me better then I even know my mixed-up self, I’m laughing, you and your old fantasy of me, every time I think of you, I think my lucky day is when I left and went away.” Taunting “oooh-oooh-oooh-oooh” harmonies and an effervescent handclap beat on the chorus are simply irresistible. A spooky organ outro and slashing guitars underscore her disdain.
The diffidence has returned for “How I Pass The Time.” Serrated guitar chords are matched by rubbery bass and a jackrabbit beat on this mid-tempo groover. Although the lyrics wax dispassion, Kim’s vocal gymnastics betray a morbid fascination and a naked bid for attention; “I’m laying here in my own bile, I’m gonna be here for a while, yeah this is how I pass the time.” A prickly guitar solo is sprinkled with pixie dust, and cushioned by patient piano chords.
Meanwhile, there’s “By Myself” which is a bit of a bash and pop. Whiplash guitar riffs ride roughshod over wily bass and a whipcrack beat. The lyrics map out some stalkerazzi moves as Kim shadows her celebrity crush; “You turn around. I’m around, you’re afraid, and I just want to meet ya….I complete you, but you don’t know it yet, I just want to keep you like you’re my little pet.” She cuts loose with a strafing guitar solo on the break, as drums pound at a furious clip. The track unwinds with a final, defiant note of feedback.
Then there’s “Don’t Pick On Me” which shares some musical DNA with Sir Douglas Quintet’s “She’s About A Mover,” The Monkees’ “Star Collector” and Little Willie John’s “Leave My Kitten Alone.” Kim’s pugnacious mien is mirrored by ricocheting guitar riffs, boomerang bass lines and a junky, percussive kick. Bellicose lyrics turn the tables on a verbally abusive ex; “I’m not stupid, no, but rather you are, your big mouth is going too far, but I don’t care who you be, don’t pick on me, don’t pick on me, you’re not the whole wide world you see, don’t pick on me or I will torture you.” a scabrous, reverb-drenched solo uncoils on the break, magnifying the threat.
“I’m Here You’re Not,” simply snap, crackles and pops. A potent combo-platter of angular bass lines, sinewy guitars and a blitzkrieg beat. Here romantic obsession results in a mental health check; “All day, all time I’m following my crooked mind, I know I’m done for looking at the wicked fun, all through my old funny face, I’m in a lonely place, I’m going round the bend.”
Finally, “Oh Poor You” opens with a squall of feedback that folds into a fusillade of fractious guitars, nimble bass and a piledriving beat. Here Kim flips the script, crankily consoling an inconsolable beau whose been given the heave-ho; “You cry and cry yourself into the ground, what you’re looking for you’ll never find in me, ooh wee, look into yourself and see and you’ll be free.” Chunky power chords muscle their way in between each phrase, amping up her urgent need to ditch this delicate flower.
The action slows on a few cuts. “Something Inside” is a jangly delight in ¾ time. The melody and arrangement echoes the Chamber Pop of the Elvis Costello deep cut, “All Grown Up.” Meanwhile, “Fancy Girl” is surprisingly tender. High lonesome harmonica partners with thrumming bass, plangent guitar and a tinker-toy beat. Kim’s vinegary vocals wash over lyrics like “In my own life I’m swimming downstream, I’ll be whatever I want to be.” Then there’s the acoustic chime of “My Awful Dream” wherein Kim offers her take on the battle of the sexes “Boy meet and often they do not agree but they often go ahead and marry, who could be less free.”
Other interesting tracks include “The Whole World” which weds barbed guitars to a walloping beat, the adenoidal swoon of “Slow” and the explosive sludge of “And I Go Pow.” Originally, the album closed with the crisp candy-coated crunch of “The Story Of Me.” Here, Kim seems to make peace with her quirks and foibles, confiding “I used to be a happy terror, now I’m happy just to be me.”
The end of disc one rounds up six bonus tracks, from the jaunty “My Whore,” the urgent “Uh-Oh,” the sing-song waltz of “Under The Covers In Jammies,” the distorto buzz of “My Imagination,” the brief victory lap of “Just The Beginning” and slightly sloppy declaration of “I Hate Gym.”
The true treasure trove can be found on disc two. Originally released as Record Store Day vinyl a few months ago, New Improved Kim Shattuck Demos offers up songs that were fleshed-out by the band for Really, Really Happy. Make no mistake, these 16 cuts are demos in name only. Kim’s arrangements and instrumentation are only slightly rougher than the finished product.
Really, Really Happy was produced and engineered by Kim. The trio received some assistance from Kristen Shattuck on vocals, Greg Saunders provided guffaws and chuckles for “Don’t Pick On Me” and Brian Kehew inserted his organ into “My Lucky Day.’ Kim’s husband Kevin Sutherland was on hand, adding claps, hoots and hollers.
The ache of losing someone never really goes away. But thanks to Omnivore Recordings, longtime Muffs fans and newer acolytes can continue to (re)discover Kim’s singular style, her caustic wit, her sly sarcasm, her crisp melodies, economical arrangements and of course, her trademark yowl. It’s all here for the asking.