Tell Him I’m Ugly
I remember how damn hard it was, being in a band back in Britain in my teens, to get any kind of gigs, let alone any gigs at which your friends could show up. Quite simply, the only places to play were pubs or licensed clubs and even if you could bluff the band in on the premise that you were “artists,” the same could not be said of your friends. And this at the peak of the post-punk era, when our freedoms were meant to be taken for granted. There will be plenty people reading this site who will remember exactly what I’m talking about.
…Which is why it was so great to see parents and friends rallying around our own musical youth last Saturday night (May 2) when the STS, Phoenicia’s lovely little theatre, hosted its first Teen Music Showcase, featuring near enough a dozen different sets of musicians for $5 admission. All acts (and all but one of the performers attends the Onteora Middle or High School) used the same back line, most performing a cover song and an original. There were three girls who did the Pop Idol thing; a retro-nineties grunge trio who butchered “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (when I realized that they had not even been born when that record came out, I had to smile and acknowledge that it was the equivalent of British bands in 1980 latching onto “Stepping Stone” or “Substitute” as totems of cool); a mad rap-rock trio of drums-bass-trumpet/drums who transformed Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day” into as avant-garde as their band name, To Area Of Refuge And Exits; the same electric guitar rendition of Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” we recently heard at the Middle School Movers and Shakers event; and an acoustic guitarist who offered up a blues-based original instrumental as well as complex cover.
But there was less than no doubt about the stars of the show. Tell Him I’m Ugly are six teenage girls and one very lucky teenage boy drummer who, together, offered up an inspired interpretation of last year’s hipster anthem, “Kids” by MGMT, a rendition rendered all the better not just by the fact that, hey, they are kids (that part’s too obvious), but by switching the pulsating synth line over to violin, augmenting it with acoustic guitars, and delivering it with feminine guile rather than male irony. Given Tell Him I’m Ugly’s genuine depth of genuine talent (I’ve seen some of these “kids” perform at school functions and elsewhere, and I know how devoted they are to their music), that song would have been quite enough to steal the evening. But the original number they followed it up with, “Ellen” (written by guitarist Edith Lerner, whose twin brother Lucious plays the drums) had not only a totally addictive charm in its purposeful simplicity, but a lyric that resonated with wit even on first listen, a wry commentary on the Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohans of the world. “Ellen was on magazines she made a record, played live shows but she just lip-synched, how would those little kids ever know?” Short to a point that the Buzzcocks in their “Love You More” heyday might have envied, “Ellen” suggests that Tell Him I’m Ugly can write as well as they can perform.
To add a note about their talent pool, the two songs featured two different lead singers: Daniella (who retreated to keyboards for “Ellen”) and Katie (who played violin on “Kids”) respectively. Neither is yet confident enough at center-stage to do much more than focus on holding the notes, but the same was said about Debbie Harry until she was 30 (seriously!), so let’s give them a few months to get used to the spotlight before we worry too much about that.
Tell Him I’m Ugly – and stop for a moment to agree what a great name that is for a group of six teenage girls (and one very lucky drummer) – have a MySpace page that features the same two songs. Their recording of “Kids” doesn’t do the live version justice, which is why you should just watch the YouTube clip above. But if you skip to their demo of “Ellen,” it offers the same ineffable charm as it did in concert: on one hand it reminds me of every teenage group’s first recordings (I hear the same opening acoustic guitar chords as on the Apocalypse song “Summer Holiday,” which we recorded in 1980, long before you were born, kids!), but on the other hand, I can hear it on the radio – as in, it sounds exactly like something John Peel would have played back in those glorious do-it-yourself post-punk days. It got me thinking how the more things change the more they stay the same (amateur charm is amateur charm whether it’s 1980 or 2009), but it’s also got me madly searching for a specific musical reference: maybe someone can help?
Several of Tell Him I’m Ugly came back out to close the evening out as the Shandettes (named for our town of Shandaken), performing “Be My Baby” and “Mr. Sandman” in splendid retro-girl group fashion. It was sweet and it was delightful and it was heartfelt. But it didn’t offer the originality or youthful zest of their rock band guise. Tell Him I’m Ugly are playing the Bearsville Theater this Saturday as part of Uncle Rock’s Mother’s Day event. I’ll be there; I’m curious to see if there’s a third good song in the offing. I don’t want to state the overly obvious, but if I was an A&R man (or woman, that being a hint to some friends in the region who didn’t make it to this gig), I’d be all over them. And I can only imagine if that John Peel were still alive, so would he. As for whether the members of Tell Him I’m Ugly have any idea who John Peel was, that’s a different story…