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Sister Ray — Doing Time in Youngstown

Sister Ray

The first record I bought by Sister Ray was the 45 “Purgatory”/“Hillside” on Forced Exposure sometime back in the late-’80s. Turns out, I really liked the 45 although, as I would discover later, it wasn’t terribly representative of their sound. Shortly thereafter, I was able to locate one of their exceedingly limited 45s (“Feel Like This”/“Invasion of The Pussy Music”) which I thought was pretty cool too. Fastfoward to a Saturday afternoon in early 1996. I had scored some copies of their third album To Spite My Face for the catalog and was sitting down to write the review. BAAAM!!! That album hit me like a ton of bricks. All of a sudden, I got it! Albiet too late, since Sister Ray stopped playing together as a band in the early ’90s due in part to lack of interest and bad luck. Just another example of a deserving band that got ignored in the glut of me-too-let’s-jump on-thebandwagon bands that polluted much of the indie scene from the mid-’80s to the present day.

Sister Ray had a deceptively simple sound. On the surface they could be labeled a punk rock or garage band. But just as you’re ready to make that definition, they throw you a curve ball. For example on their No Way To Express album the first four songs are pretty high energy almost punky affairs. Then you get the moody “Just One Night” that shows a different set of influences. The lyrics (when you can decipher them) are quite witty and often times poke fun at some unsuspecting victim.

“Psycho Sis”/“Bathroom Blues” is a 45 that came out in 1989 on Ajax. I’m not exactly when the tracks were recorded, but it seems like they might have been put down between their first and second albums. Most of their early 45s are quite unique stylwise and are different than the sound that they would develop later on. “Psycho Sis” is sort of a bridge between their early non-style sound and the frontal assault that was to come. The flip, “Bathroom Blues” is a mid-tempo bluesy sounding number that again falls into what might be called the transition period. The guitar sound here is raw and you can clearly hear the roots of what was to come later on.

The Blow Job EP is an extremely limited record (Only 300 made) that was recorded in 1988 while they were recording the No Way To Express LP. But quoting Rusty at Matador seems to be the fashionable thing to do, so she says… “This cool outfit had a couple of amazing albums in the late ’80s and a slew of very collectible singles. Were talking punk rock in simple terms and you have to own this comeback single. I couldn’t say it any better…”

No Way To Express, which came out in 1989 was their second album for the now defunct Resonance Records. It is a shining example of how hard it is to describe their sound. While the sound is farily uniform, the songs differ from one another quite a bit and its hard to tell where they are trying to take it. Sometimes they sound like straight up punk, other times ’60s influenced garage or occasionally they sound like a contemporary band (“Progression” could have easily been done by the Moving Targets). The only thing that is fairly consistent accross the board is the loud guitars. What really shines on this record is the song writing. It is clever without going out of its way to draw attention to itself (the album closes with an original called “A Day In The Life”). This album wanders stylistically more than either their first or third albums exploring new territory for awhile before retreating to the saftety of their sonic overdrive. One of these explorations is the moody “Just One Night“ which features a great example of their lyrics:

Why won’t you just leave me alone,
You don’t know the person I’ve become,
Out on the corner all by myself,
I need a dose of mental health,
I don’t belive a word that I say,
So why don’t you just go away!

To Spite My Face from 1990 (also on Resonance) is quite possibly Sister Ray’s tour-de-force (though I have still not been able to find a copy of their final album Too Mean To Kill, Too Young To Kill). Mark Hanely contributes some of the fiercest guitar playing I’ve ever heard (by nearly anyone) to this album. The pace of the sequencing and the overall guitar-heavy mix help to make this album the closest thing to punk rock they ever did. Yet, once again, there are other influences bubbling to the surface from time to time that give some of the songs a different flavor. After the buzzsaw drive of most of the first side, the mid-tempo “Ten Years After“ offers an almost reflective mood with garagey guitar and reminiscent lyrics. Indeed there are a few other slower songs on this album, but just so you know where they stand, they end To Spite My Face with the incendiary “Is This Real?“ which is 3:46 of searing guitar and soul-searching vocalizing. The lyrics, once again, are quite strong, and help paint the different moods on this records. The lecturing “Not 18“ asks how bystanders could let a friend OD on heroin, while “Do It Now“ takes a totally different attitude telling a near suicidal character to just, uh, you know, “do it now.“ That mood swing is evident all over this album, even from song to song. Again and again I preach, its the songwriting, stupid! And the songwriting really sets this record apart from most of what was happening in 1990. Maybe it’s the fact that they lived in a small city where they could develop and do their own thing untainted by all the trendmongers who were starting to shove heavy metal masquerading as grunge down our throats. (And if I could interject here, good songwriting, not musical style makes the best bands! Substance over style always wins. Just see who will be remembered in ten years, and who will be thought of as disposable stylists!) By the way, To Spite My Face is also one of the thickest pressings I’ve seen in years. The record alone weighs 200 grams.