The Upshot: Thumbing through her back pages, the songwriter offers up sweet pop alongside snarling punk for a wonderfully vivid sonic memoir.
BY FRED MILLS
Jean Caffeine is a gifted, extroverted singer/songwriter, artist, actress, and a writer, spending time in San Francisco, NYC, Austin, Durham, Ontario, and elsewhere, and along the way she’s collected plenty of memories and vivid stories to go with those memories. Sadie Saturday Nite, then, her first album since 2011’s acclaimed Geckos In the Elevator, is what I’ll describe as an aural memoir in which she thumbs through her back pages via song and spoken interludes, going all the way back to her concert-going days as a high schooler in San Francisco. It’s a vivid narrative she spins from the outset: thrumming midtempo rocker “Neon Adventure / Mission (District) Statement” offers sonic snapshots of those early days; that’s immediately followed by “High School Was A Drag,” a spoken narrative outlining her misfit status; and then by “Winterland (Talking Blues),” part-spoken and part-sung, telling how she escaped the teenage doledrums via shows by Bowie, the Stones, the Who, Patti Smith, etc. For anyone who was also on the scene at the time, regardless of the city, it all rings remarkable true.
Soon enough, Caffeine immersed herself on the burgeoning San Fran punk scene, and as detailed in the delightfully waltzing—and, musically, determinedly un-punk—title track, she “was a mere 17, when she spotted a poster for the Nuns & Crime”—and that was all it took. She would learn the drums and join a punk band herself, The Urge, later moving across-country to New York where she wound up in actress/rocker Ann Magnuson’s band Pulsallama for a stint before forming her own group, Clambake. Here, on the album, the ridiculously catchy “All Girl Band” details those band experiences: “We learned to play on the stage,” she sings, against a jangly/poppy/garagey backdrop, “one note at a time, out of tune, a beat behind.” (There’s a sneaky homage to the Go-Gos in the middle of the tune worth listening for.)
Other highlights include dreamy ballad “It’s Not Nice Without You,” the thumping, T. Rex-esque “Mad As Hell in the White Night,” a riffy number the smartly nicks a handful of Sex Pistols licks (“Winter of Hate”), and a positively brilliant cover of the Zeros’ punk anthem “Wimp.” Throughout, Caffeine adjusts her vocal style, chameleon like, to the specific tone and imagery of each song, crooning sweetly one moment in a poppy tune and sneering in the next for a punk arrangement.
Overall, Sadie Saturday Night is both poignant and fun, bringing an autobiography to vivid life. The record is, in fact, intended as a companion to a one woman/one guitar player show that Caffeine has put together about growing up punk in San Francisco during the ‘70s. Currently based in Austin, she’s doing performances here and there, with shows coming up soon in Arizona and on the West Coast. (Details at the Facebook Page the Jean Caffeine Appreciation Society.) If you get a chance to see her, don’t pass up the opportunity. It just might turn out to be a lot like thumbing through your own back pages.
It’s on vinyl, to book, wax fans. More details:
DOWNLOAD: “Wimp,” “Winter of Hate,” “All Girl Band”