The Secret History
Pop music formed by ’60s girl groups are often subjected to ancient stereotypes. Joyous harmonies, lyrics consisting of nothing more than multiply layered “doo-wop-da-doo-wop”s, and a subtle sway of the hips for sex appeal (or the most of what was allowed of it on TV at the time). While much of what was considered “mainstream” at the time did confine to these characteristics, left-field girl-groups like The Shangri-Las expelled emotions with somewhat of risk through the inclusion of thematically appropriate music without regard for radio popularity. Contrary to the bouncy fanfare of rock hits or the romanticized demeanor of ballads on the radio, several decided to pursue artistic expression without regard for what the general public was seeking: talented women producing a brand of pleasantly engaging pop that fit nicely next to the works of contemporary pop from The Beatles, The Zombies, and other then-bustling British invasion bands.
The Shangri-Las’ devastating “Past, Present and Future”, which has been covered with adoration by Jens Lekman, details the abandonment of love’s pursuit after the ending of a first relationship. The theme is common today and even with rock groups at the time, but the way The Shangri-las delivered this song with its gritty first-person narrative, somber touch of strings and keys, and utter disregard for radio-friendly structural optimism was entirely unique for groups of their vein at the time. It felt realer than anything else on the radio at the time, and simply listening to it will make one understand how Jens Lekman moved the audience to tears after his rendition of it. Referring to the fate-dependent fortune of love, the song ends with a gloomy “I don’t think it will ever happen again” before abruptly concluding. Sure, any artist can be rebellious in regard to attaining commercialized exposure, but few can take as many risks and succeed as often as The Shangri-Las did.
The Secret History is a stylish trio from New York City, one that deals in an interesting fusion of girl-group pop and glam-rock that combines the subtle emotional rawness and prevalent capriciousness of each respective genre. The former is labeled as one with a history of restraint, categorized both by gender treatment and a time that was more conservative than today. Glam, on the other hand, is one of the more prominent forms of artistic expression that truly had no boundaries. It took place in a period of cultural reprieve, in the ’70s and ’80s when the baby boomers of the ’60s had grown accustomed to more flexible treatment of previously “inappropriate” aspects of media. To find both of these periods and genres collide is certainly interesting, and I applaud The Secret History for producing a sound that is both infectiously over-the-top and emotionally representative; it does both movements justice.
In the spirit of the World Cup, the intro to the anthemic “Johnny Anorak” sounds no different than a frenzied pub at kick-off. Appropriately enough, as the song lacks nothing in terms of achieving its expectations as a pulsating opener. The pulsating guitars and vigorous percussion in the early goings suggest the looming presence of a domineering voice, one that disproportionately and disappointingly steals the spotlight from the music. Lisa Ronson, the daughter of glam legend Mick Ronson, prevents this from happening with her utterly perfect voice, at least for the style of music her band is attempting. Her lack of submissiveness to predictable melodic patterns excludes her from typical girl-group comparisons, but her harmonic capabilities and stylistically aligning pitch make the presence more girl-pop than glam-rock. This is a very fortunate twist, as it is what truly creates the cohesiveness within the relationship between glam-rock and girl-group pop for The Secret History.
The instrumentation in most of their songs is definitely more on the glam-rock side, recalling specifically the earlier work of Manic Street Preachers in their simultaneously catchy and thought-provoking mixture of glam and alt-rock. Ronson has more of a Morrissey-like deepness vibrato in “Death Mods”, going as far to echo his overly dramatic delivery in the lyrics. “Life is hard but death is harder,” she sings seemingly tongue-in-cheek, “So I took up with an underage martyr.” Then she speaks of children killing the babysitter and, well, the effort is entertaining at the very least. Not exactly in the vein of the immediately accessible “Johnny Anorak” or “Our Lady of Stalingrad”, but it will have its fans. This track could perhaps earn them an opening slot for Morrissey, though honestly at this point after the release of their excellent second album The World That Never Was they are destined for greater things. Their music is polished and insanely addictive, all while avoiding the generic production tendencies of modern indie-rock.
RIYL: My Favorite, Cats on Fire, The Aislers Set, Les Savy Fav, Sambassadeur, Gigi, The Lodger, David Bowie, The Shangri-Las, The Mynabirds, Another Sunny Day, The Orchids, The Indelicates, The Field Mice, Beulah, Language of Flowers, Rose Melberg, Stars, The Long Blondes, The New Pornographers, Comet Gain, Saturday Looks Good to Me