Is It Time to Stop Holding Back This '90s Alternarock Phenom?
By Kurt Wildermuth
Once upon a time, in the mid to late '90s, there lived a little pop-rock band called Pee Shy. Their story delivers a variation on the trajectory of so many so-called alternative bands of that time, from indie rumblings to major-label meltdown. The Pee Shy story is covered in what may be the most beautifully written Wikipedia page I've ever read. Someone cared enough about this band to put up that classy marker.
Pee Shy existed, people. If their bio's on the Internet, it must be true, and since that page exists, I don't need to repeat the facts. Instead, I'm here to advocate that you give Pee Shy's music a try or revisit what you know of it.
At the website Discogs, a user pledges eternal allegiance to Pee Shy and wonders aloud why their music never received more attention. A second user endorses the praise and offers this explanation for their commercial failure: "atrocious album art."
Yes, there was some of that. And the CD titles were awkward and seemingly unrelated to everything else about the recordings. And the band name made people uncomfortable. Otherwise, Pee Shy had everything going for them.
I'm equivocating because I have mixed feelings about Pee Shy. Those feelings are largely the same ambivalences I had back in the day, but now they're compounded by the passage of time. The world was ever nasty, but now, at the start of the twenty-first century, with the impending doom of global warming and the latest rise of fascist mongering and Vladimir Putin's brutalization of Ukraine and the U.S. Republican Party's campaigns to overtake the electoral process and turn back the clock on women's rights and social progress, world events feel so raw. The end of so much, and yet so little, seems so near. So why should anyone care about an obscure, far from perfect pop-rock band from bygone days?
Because, people, while we still have some time and life left in us, let's embrace the beautiful, the moving, the exhilarating.
Pee Shy's first CD, 1996's Who Let All the Monkeys Out?, includes those things and more. It simultaneously captures and transcends its moment. It also sports decent cover art, whose hand-crafted nature signals the band's playfulness, although the crazy-mechanical-monkey imagery, garish colors, and scrawled type suggest punk rock more than pop-rock.
All but one of the tracks were produced by an indie-rock luminary, Dean Wareham. You may know his solo work, his duo with Britta Phillips, his band Luna, or his original band, Galaxie 500. For some of you, Wareham's involvement may be a big enough hook to send you in search of this Pee Shy CD.
If you already own it and haven't listened to it for a while, venture into your archive and be delighted by how fresh it sounds. Wasn't it fun to like them way back when?
That was easy; my work is done.
If you don't own Who Let All the Monkeys Out?, you might want to sample the one track not produced by Wareham: "Little Dudes." Pee Shy's signature song, it became the promo CD single. If the band had progressed to greater heights, "Little Dudes" might be an alternative-culture touchstone like the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun" or Divynls' "I Touch Myself."
The recording is a strange case. Clearly, the record company saw hit potential in the lyrics' charm and the melody's deliciousness (the tune seems both instantly memorable and ages' old). The record company was Blue Gorilla, a short-lived subsidiary of Mercury Records founded by Rick Chertoff. Best known for producing Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual (1983) and Joan Osborne's Relish (1995), Chertoff produced this Pee Shy track, but he must have thought the band was subpar. I haven't heard Pee Shy's self-released demo cassette, which dates to their origins in Florida and led off with a version of "Little Dudes," so who knows. Maybe at the start they showed enough promise to sign but still couldn't quite execute their signature song.
Not a single member of Pee Shy plays an instrument on the Chertoff-produced "Little Dudes," as the musicians are replaced with friends of Chertoff: basically the people who played on Relish, such as members of the Philadelphia band the Hooters, who are best known for songs I can't call to mind. However, the vocals are by Pee Shy's two lead singers: Cindy Wheeler and Jenny Juristo.
The funny thing is, if you didn't check the musicians' credits, where Chertoff's friends are credited with "special appearances" on "Little Dudes," you'd never know the music wasn't played by Pee Shy, which consisted of multi-instrumentalists Wheeler and Juristo, bassist Mary Guidera, and drummer Bill Bowman. I saw Pee Shy in concert shortly after the CD came out, and they could play, people. They put on such a good show that I saw them again at least once. Wheeler, in particular, struck me as the Jimi Hendrix of accordion feedback. As a result, I've always been baffled about this big switcheroo.
By the way, I'm assuming that Chertoff, not the band, made the swap. Has a band ever asked to not to play on its signature song? Maybe Chertoff heard that Pee Shy planned to call their CD Who Let All the Monkeys Out? , became confused, and thought he was working with the Monkees! Those dudes were allowed to play only a little on their first two albums and had to fight to play on their third.
In any case, imagine a record company in 2022 aiming to promote "Little Dudes." The song concerns some young women's interest in "little boys":
We keep our eyes open for the little dudes
'Cause they never try to tell us what to do
Fair enough, especially in the wake of #MeToo. The singer specifies that the little dudes are consenting adults:
Well, I ain't old enough to be your mom
But you were six years old when I went to the prom
We're left to do the math. However, even back in 1996, in New York City when I saw Pee Shy, audiences laughed nervously when the age difference was played for wicked laughs:
Well, you hardly have to shave around that smile
Please don't think I'm a pedophile
Nowadays the track would have to come with a trigger warning. That it's sung so sweetly by women makes it easier to take than if it were about, say, "little gals" and sung by males of any age. The end of the song is actually touching--as opposed to actual touching--when the singer looks for the little dude who got away. The video, currently available on YouTube, shows Wheeler, Juristo, and Guidera putting some questionable moves on actual boys, who run off at the end, but this scenario looks as cartoonish as an episode of Josie and the Pussycats.
Of course, the whole business seems tame compared with material from today's hip-hop and pop artists. Indeed, "Little Dudes" could be revised and reworked as a "WAP"-style rap. In that light, Pee Shy was ahead of their time with a different track on Who Let All the Monkeys Out? , the exhortation "Dance Mother F*!kers" (sic).
Now suppose, having dipped your toes in or tuned your ears to "Little Dudes," you find the melody and lilting instrumentation appealing. You might then turn to the track "Smoking Gun," which could be a musical cousin of "Little Dudes" without the questionable premise. Here, a plaintive clarinet opening makes room for expansive accordion, plus more of Wheeler and Juristo's crystalline harmonies. Surely the musicians who played this could have handled "Little Dudes." The sophisticated interplay and dissonance announce that Pee Shy will bring something different to this crazy little thing called alternative rock. Put "rock" in quotes, though, because the rhythm section never appears on this track.
By contrast, "Red Ink" and "Ode to Nic" exhibit the full band's ability to speed up, coming as close to rocking as a song with a clarinet solo could or should. "Keep It Simple, Stupid" and "Bend Over" ("Want you to meet a friend of mine") combine clarinet-and-accordion-based interludes with infectiously catchy tunes and a willingness to let the song venture in unexpected directions.
The CD's secret weapons are the spacious, keyboard-based ballads "You Belong" and "It's the Love." Seasoned songwriters have labored long, tortured themselves, and not produced material that so arrestingly tugs at heartstrings. The songs' materials are simple, the lyrics skeletal. But the voices, giving resonance to key phrases such as "standing at a distance" and "it's not me," make these songs, astonishingly, seem the equals of Stephen Sondheim's most straightforward compositions. It's a shame that Pee Shy never got around to covering Sondheim's "I'm Still Here."
From a different musical universe: If you're a B-52's fan, you might want to try the cheesy-keyboard-fueled "Jason, I Thought I Saw a U.F.O." or the trumpet-enhanced "Jazz Freakin'," which ain't jazz but yields silly pleasure.
While the opening track, "Four Miles," presents a bit of shoegaze-lite throat-clearing that never quite coheres into a song, the closer, "There's No Room for Your Godforsaken Baby," shows Pee Shy comfortably stretching out. This track begins as mild psychedelia, with strummed guitar, soulful vocals, and a "Hey Jude" tempo. Somewhere in there, Dean Wareham contributes backing vocals, and if you know his music, you know he loved the spacey spaciousness here. Then an honest-to-God guitar solo leads, articulately, to electronic sounds that take us into the cosmos, as the poet and visual artist Todd Colby free associates about matters related to babies . . . baby. (The CD also includes a few of Pee Shy's own brief spoken-word interludes, the mid-'90s having been the heyday of poetry slams.)
Two years later came Don't Get Too Comfortable, the band's second and final CD. This one was produced by Brad Jones, who is best known for work with the singer/songwriter Jill Sobule, who is best known for her 1995 Modern Rock hit "I Kissed a Girl."
Throughout their swan song, Pee Shy seem determined to prove their mettle. The music emphasizes an electric band sound, beautifully recorded and dynamically performed, with muscular drumming and shimmering guitar textures. However, the songs foreground an angularity that keeps you fascinated but never quite lets you in. In addition, the lyrics' narrative distance is matched by the singers' reserve--they're feeling the anger, hurt, and lust of the lyrics, but they don't display the open-heartedness of Who Let All the Monkeys Out?
It's as though Pee Shy, having moved from indie embrace to the wider world, became protective. The music gained in professionalism but lost in warmth. The shift might be seen as the reverse of Talking Heads' progression from their first album to their second. Whereas the charming restraint of the T. Heads' debut, 77, gave way the next year to the sonic adventurousness of the Eno-produced More Songs about Buildings and Food, the playfulness and kitchen-sinkness of Who Let All the Monkeys Out? was replaced by Pee Shy's determination to prove themselves a viable commercial prospect (of an alternative nature).
Still, this is not Pee Shy Sell Out. Even for indie purists, Don't Get Too Comfortable offers much to appreciate.
"Mr. Whisper," the lead track and promo CD single, is a finely crafted chunk of pop-rock, with inventive lyrical turns ("Committing armed robbery / You were holding up the bank of me"). In its tightness, though, "Mr. Whisper" signals that Pee Shy's days of organic sounds--the combination of clarinet, accordion, and piano--have passed.
Those days reappear briefly, in the clarinet solo at the start of the sweet "Bathroom Floor" and the start of the electrifying "Jad Fair," whose dreamy accordion and guitar lead to a full-on rock assault. Jad Fair, as some of you may know, is an indie-rock figure, best known for the band Half Japanese and a collaboration with Yo La Tengo. The lyrics here may indicate a fondness for him ("Where do you get off / I'd like to come with you").
Like "Jad Fair," "Some Day Soon" features a tempo change, as light psychedelia erupts into a noisily rocking conclusion. Similarly, "Tree Craps" indicates that the band has rehearsed its way into tight interplay and the ability to quickly shift gears.
They also adopt and adapt styles: "Big Blue Sky" bears the influence of U2 and R.E.M.. "Too Punk" ("He's too punk to move a muscle") owes a debt to Throwing Muses. "Much Obliged" ventures into loungey space-age bachelor pad music. The majestic "Rope Waltz" contemplates existential uses of rope and string in three/four time--but alas, at less than three minutes, barely stays its welcome.
As, indeed, did Pee Shy. They were fun while they lasted, and to my ears they were better, more imaginative, than many who lasted longer. Whether they'd have had more to say if the music business hadn't done them in, who knows. Whether they'll signify for you at this point, only you can say.
Say something. Don't be shy.
See Kurt Wildermuth's website
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