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Telefon Tel Aviv I dream of it often: from Dreams Are Not Enough (Ghostly International) Add to Collection
written by CHIRP Radio DJ and Features Co-Drector Mick Reed
There is no reprieve from death. Dying is the one big thing everyone has to do. There is no calling in sick. No going on vacation and waiting it out. No Holiday.
The Muffs tackled a lot of dark subject matter over their long and circuitous career. Depression, inadequacy, alienation, and deep pits of loneliness, but death really never seemed at the forefront of lead songwriter and vocalist Kim Shattuck’s mind. She, bassist Ronnie Barnett, and ex-Redd Cross drummer Roy McDonald just seemed too busy living.
Even when life was hard, they never really shied away from its harsh, indifferent light. But the tears in their sides and sharp stones under their feet, were laughed off as just part of what made this bumpy ride we’re all on more interesting. Rough terrain never seemed to phase them.
And undoubtedly, the Muffs would hit some rough terrain before the close of the decade. Kim died on October 2, 2019. She was only 56.
It shocked a lot of people when Kim passed. She never publicly announced her diagnosis when she learned that she had ALS, a deadly hereditary disease. A disease that inspired people across the world to court hypothermia in a rash of a pan-flash viral content in an attempt to build awareness and find a cure. This movement of course became known as the Polar Plunge [...citation needed...].
The Muffs released their second to last album Whoop Dee Doo in July of 2014, at the height of the viral craze that would raise over $200 million in the US alone to combat ALS. Kim didn’t realize that she had ALS in 2014. And it’s unclear how much of the money that was raised from people dumping ice water on their heads actually went toward fighting her disease.
In July 2019, Kim teamed up with Muff alumni Melanie Vammen and prolific punk percussionist Palmyra Delran to release a record under the name The Coolies. Kim wrote most of the songs on the band’s one and only album, Uh-Oh! It’s…The Coolies, and oversaw the recording and engineering as well.
The proceeds from album sales were donated entirely to the ALS Association Golden West Chapter and it’s currently sold out on vinyl. When asked about the record and its cause by Vents Magazine, Kim focused on the future, stating "Sadly, it runs in my damn family, and that disease is a mystery to just about every scientist! We are definitely interested in finding a cure for ALS! Cure it already!”
She knew that the disease was going to kill her when she gave that interview. If you can’t save yourself, you still may be able to push someone else out of the way of an oncoming train. I tell myself that’s the logic of this statement, but I can't know for sure. Maybe she really did think that she would live long enough to see a breakthrough, but I doubt it. And amazingly enough, this wasn’t even her swan song.
No Holiday was is the last studio album released by the Muffs, and the last studio album that Kim Shattuck had any part in writing and recording before she died. The band began work on the album in earnest in 2017 following a massively successfully tour in South America. The band had been riding an enthusiastic wave of interest in their music following their return from hiatus and release of Whoop Dee Doo which peeked at #34 on Billboard’s Heatseeker charts.
While working on new material for what would become No Holiday, Kim started to have issues with stiffness in her wrists. The problem persisted long enough that she eventually sought out the advice of a physician. It was at this point that she learned of her condition.
The diagnosis redoubled the band’s efforts in the hopes of finishing a record before the disease could complete its inevitable trajectory. According to drummer Roy in an interview with LA Times, he recounted that Kim, “produced this entire record [No Holiday]… all this while that evil disease continued on its path… She is the bravest person I’ll ever know.”
Like David Bowie’s Black Star, No Holiday is a complete statement of artistic intent which stares headlong into the blinding light of future where the author will knowingly cease to be. It’s both reminiscent of past records and not. Quintessential and atypical. Quixotic and succinct.
The Muffs are known for their speed, rip-tear riffs, and brash but disarming disposition. The fastest songs on No Holiday are the brief and stabby “Down Down Down” and “The Kids Have Gone Away,” a mid-tempo number that would have been the “slow song” if it had been included on any other record of theirs. In that respect, it’s very atypical, as it’s not in a hurry to get anywhere.
Instead, No Holiday savors the moments that it has with the listener, substituting speed-ball riffage, for rough, but intimate, acoustic, and stripped back numbers, that retain the raw, rascally energy that informs the band’s aesthetic and identity.
Of these more subdued cuts is “Sky,” an obvious standout, with its preciously soft and muted, feathery chords and a thin sounding, climbing lead that sounds like protruding rungs of a ladder that stretches over the clouds, with lyrics that muse about leaving earth for someplace else. The winding and boney creak of “Too Awake” is similarly striking. Both tracks have a beguiling lo-fi production that allow the flavor of their tart pop hooks to emerge undiluted, lingering without losing their potency.
The disease was apparently affecting not just Kim’s motor functions during the recordings of these tracks, but also her voice, a fact that is evident on the reedy, feels-train churner of “Insane,” where you can hear her vocals straining against the range limits which the disease cruelly imposed on her otherwise fluid, raspy, and dynamic shout.
Many of the songs on No Holiday were built out of older demos that Kim had written for, but not included, on previous releases, dating as far back as to the band’s inception in 1991. You can hear hints here and there of how many of these tracks, in a different lifetime, might have been workshopped to slot into Blonder and Blonder, Happy Birthday to Me, or other earlier releases, but it’s hard to imagine them sounding as good on any of those other albums.
No Holiday was a collaboration between the band and the people who love and support them, in a way that it is not clear any previous album had been. The album was partially recorded at Kim’s home, with assistance from longtime friends, family, and former bandmates, including Melanie Vammen, many of whom worked for free as a gift to Kim.
This swell of community seems to have endowed what were essentially ‘b’ and ‘c’ sides into something more, something persistently edifying and illuminating. There are some classic sounding Muffs tracks on No Holiday for sure, like the swinging groove of the sardonic but sober, swell-and-slap “Sick of this Old World,” the bouncing sock-toed skip under a polished undertow of a groove that has a sticky effect on the song’s top-line and clear-eyed melody, the cuttingly wry bumble of opener “That’s for Me” that ends just as it sounds like it’s about to start… which I think as far as theming goes, is as unsubtle as it comes.
That said, the album’s melding of their iconic style and the raw communal love that pushed some of the less refined tracks into a higher weight class, all meld together into a unified whole on the title track. “No Holiday” takes up The Muff’s well-trodden lyrical approach of describing the author through the vantage point of another in order to mock that individual, with wry attitude and a chiding wobbly, sucker-punching groove, it takes to task all the mawkish sympathizers and lifeless condolences that someone encounters on their way to the grave, encapsulating her rebuke of their pity in the closing line “And I wish you well, just go to hell, just go away.”
There are strong parallels between this track and their 1995 single “Sad Tomorrow” off of Blonder and Blonder. That song also had a bubbly melody, and spiteful lyrics, concerning people who think they’re good and well intentioned, but whose words and actions make the life of the author intolerable. It’s also noteworthy for its grim thesis, that if the author just died then everyone else could just go on with their happy lives and she could quit her suffering. With “No Holiday” however, it’s others’ flaccid concern for her soon to be passing that leave her longing for relief of death’s cold embrace.
Something that I’ve read over and over again in the aftermath of Kim’s death is just how much she gave to people. How she was someone who would give, and give, and give, and still have more to offer. A fountain of human charisma and generosity. Her splashes of wily wisdom warped many young brains into lovey gleaming gems, capable of powering laser beams powerful enough to cut through the solid walls of corrugated BS that life throws up in each of our paths, day after day after day.
Whether it’s to listen to your own thoughts and feelings when being talked down to by someone who doesn’t know what’s better for you (“My Crazy Afternoon”), that it’s OK to let someone out of your life after you’ve both changed (“Funny Face”), or that when someone isn’t fair to you, you don’t need them as a friend (“Right in the Eye”), every Muffs album is overflowing with lessons about self-respect and self-seeking honesty, to the point that any selection from their back catalog can do more for a person’s well-being than 500 hours’ worth of licensed therapy.
The greatest lesson I think Kim had to offer though, was the one that she lived. She was the person who she sang about in her music. She was the somewhat selfish, rascally rock-steady, whip-smart weirdo, who wouldn’t swallow life’s crap, and with a smile, would spit that swill right back in its face. And she lived that truth, and inspired others to do the same, until she literally squeezed out her last ounce of breath. Life will eventually take everything from you, but you shouldn’t give it up without a fight.
I never saw the Muffs perform live. It’s one of my biggest regrets. I’ve seen videos though. The set they did at Amoeba Records back in 2016 was pretty stellar and emblematic of what I love about the band. Kim and Ronnie trading barbs about the latter looking like Bill Nye, amongst other wholesome banter. They always had so much fun together, and their affability as a group cut through to their recordings as well.
Every single one of their songs (with the exception of their cover of “Kids in America”) feels cut from a technicolor dream coat of snot-nosed enthusiasm and a zeal for life’s weirder, wackier, and yeah, sadder moments. They’re a band that sounds like they’re always at a party, where the guest list is just you and the people who get your flawed sense of humor and embrace the quirks and defense mechanisms you’ve developed living under the weight of life’s compounding disappointments.
No Holiday is that party’s equivalent of someone putting on “Closing Time,” and everyone starts singing along… except the best of Supersonic’s catalog can’t go toe-to-toe with The Muffs worst (well, maybe “Kids in America”).
It’s really not even the song, but the mood that it conjures after decades of serving as a light-hearted signal that the good times have come to an end. That a transition is taking place. That it’s time to go. You don’t have to go home. You can’t. And you can’t stay here. And she didn’t. None of us can stay here forever. We’ll miss you Kim. We’ll miss you so very, very much.
Mick is an on-air DJ and Co-Director of Features at CHIRP Radio. He is always writing about something, possibly even something you might enjoy. You can read more of his stuff at I Thought I Heard a Sound blog.
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