It is heartbreaking that Kim Shattuck, the forthright singer and cocksure songwriter for the Muffs, died at the beginning of October. Renowned for her short, sharp brand of power-pop punk song, yearning but prickly lyrics, and screamy, shredded vocals with a tender, expressive edge, Shattuck — who spent time in the Pandoras, the Coolies and, for a minute, the Pixies — passed away after a two-year struggle with ALS. Produced in the midst of serious illness or not, this first new Muffs album in five years illustrates that Shattuck’s talent was an unstoppable force.
The main Muff leaves behind a rep for sugar-pop riffage, manic tempos, deep hooks and a lyrical éclat pitched between smart snark and adoring devotion. As much a part of the ’80s/’90s California punk scene as Green Day — with tracks equally dynamic and eclectic as those of Billie Joe Armstrong — the Muffs never got all of the acclaim and sales they deserved. Shame, as Shattuck had formidable tricks up her sleeve that went beyond most of her scene contemporaries, like the countless actor-ly vocal flips that fill “No Holiday.”
Released through Omnivore Recordings, the label that re-released the Los Angeles band’s first three Reprise albums (“The Muffs,” “Blonder and Blonder” and “Happy Birthday to Me”), the blunt melodic songs of “No Holiday” — all penned by Shattuck between 1991 and 2017 — fit logically into the Muffs’ sunnily corrosive, big rock catalog without seeming like an afterthought.
Although the songs were not originally knitted together for a concise whole at their start, “No Holiday” works as seamlessly as any of the Muffs’ barbed and buoyant albums. Neither a host of lost odds-‘n’-sods or a trite list of found tracks, the 18 songs here are freshly intuitive gut-punches from a crew (including bassist Ronnie Barnett and drummer Roy McDonald) who’ve been hitting the bag hard since 1993.
Starting with the mirthful, mid-tempo “That’s for Me,” Shattuck reminds listeners that the most complexly melodic punk songs need not last beyond two minutes to hold several shifts in vocal attitude and attack. The rockist roller-coaster harmony ride of “Pollyanna” also manages to make a deep impact in mere seconds.
If rough attack is the thing without feathers, Shattuck’s high-pitched, scuffed-up screech at the end of the speeding, rowdy “Down Down Down” is the perfect coda to its sing-song-y start. When Shattuck gets to the clicking title track, she curls and gulps the first several lines, until hitting the phrase “I’m over it.” Once there, she theatrically turns four syllables into eight, and finds drama in each drop. Before that same track with its Keith Moon-y drum fills is done, Shattuck turns “I wish you well, now go to hell” into a mantra without wearing out its welcome, while making up accents to express disgust and point out pretentiousness in others.
While a majority of its songs are crisply recorded for maximum overdrive, several moments of “No Holiday” play out like raw-powered demos and home recordings.
“Earth Below Me,” for example, is gruff and under-baked, sonically, when it comes to its grouchy, steady guitar riffs. But it’s no less potent in its “Our Lips Are Sealed” appeal, nor less poignant in the way Shattuck’s high voice drops an octave and promises, quietly: “I’ll be nice to you.” There’s a lullaby lilt to “Late and Sorry” (namely that of “Hush, Little Baby”) that gives the rude rocker a childish, nyah-nyah vibe.
Even sparer and homier (in regards to its DIY recording levels) is the oompah-pah-pah of “The Best,” where a clear-voiced Shattuck rhapsodizes about her “most excellent guy,” or the amped, acoustic jangle of “A Lovely Day Boo Hoo,” an early-Beatles-ish melody with quietly rumbling Ringo rhythms that finds the singer in a warm, funny place of quiet expression. The sparse and open “Happier Just Being With You” wouldn’t sound too out of place, either, on “Beatles ’65.”
That Beatles comparison can best be heard, albeit with a baroque, Bacharach-ian edge, on “To That Funny Place” and “You Talk and You Talk.”
While the vocal and instrumental harmonies that inform these two tracks find Shattuck at her most complexly cosmopolitan, their sophistication is only matched by the expressive cracks in her cocky vocals. As if she’s finding a hundred different ways to say “love” before your very eyes, Shattuck goes through a handful of subtle vocal tics, octave shifts and word curls. These two songs alone show just how much Shattuck had matured as a singer since her start. The rest of “No Holiday” is rich icing on a delicate cake in comparison
By the time she gets to the frank yet fanciful finale of “Sky,” Shattuck and the rest of the Muffs have gone through more handsomely progressive changes than a power pop outfit has the right to, all without screwing up the blueprint.
While we’ll never know where Kim Shattuck and the Muffs could’ve gone from here, “No Holiday” is a lovely, fresh and progressive look at where she stood.