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Rewriting History

These girl groups aren't everything they're cracked up to be, but Jen Trynin comes close

"While many of the songs on this collection never saw any chart action, they're just as good as the ones that did," insists Sheryl Farber, one of four annotators on Rhino's four-CD, 120-track, $69.95 One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds, Lost & Found. Having played it through four or five times, I doubted this. But to check I pulled

Rhino's 20-track, one-CD Girl Group Greats, and soon there were plumbers dancing in my living room—plumbers who, like Farber but not me, were too young to have experienced "Heat Wave," "He's So Fine," "My Boyfriend's Back," or "Sally, Go 'Round the Roses" briefly making the world a better place.

Though Girl Group Greats runneth over with cute novelties, as it had better, it's as titanic and transcendent as great Hendrix or Stones. These girls project spunk, spirit, and spirituality. These young women are proud and insecure, proactive and tender. This music of compliance blurts out, breaks out, blisses out. And in all these ways it's enlarging for any human being who can hear it. The Shirelles and the Shangri-Las—as well as the Marvelettes, the Supremes, and a few others—stand as distinct entities worth getting to know at length, but their place in this movement renders their individuality more complex. The pretext of One Kiss Can Lead to Another, a fake hatbox housing CDs in fake compacts and a 200-page booklet done up as a diary, is to flesh out the movement with less well remembered records. This it does. But it's also a giant crate dig.

The Shirelles and the Shangri-Las—as well as the Chiffons, Dusty Springfield, Maxine Brown, Lesley Gore, Jackie DeShannon, Evie Sands, Little Eva, the Cookies, their secret sharers the Cinderellas, Motown third-stringers the Velvelettes, and the mysteriously beloved Reparata and the Delrons—get two tracks each, which doesn't raise the general quality all that much. A more effective ploy bends the obscurities-only rule: Irma Thomas's "Break-A-Way" the Ikettes' "I'm Blue," Ruby and the Romantics' No. 1 "Our Day Will Come." The box shows respect to our Brit brethren, and guess who had better studio musicians? Where only five of the 20 songs on Girl Group Greats (including its one dog) are by white artists, here the racial split is a polite 50-50, with the predictable result that most of the merely generic selections are black and most of the bombs are white. For all these reasons and more ("Dolly Parton did one!" "So did Twiggy!" "Ever notice how this melody never resolves?"), the few moments of transcendence—I'd single out the Chiffons' dreamlike "Nobody Knows What's Goin' On (In My Mind But Me)" and Earl-Jean's gentle original of Herman's Hermits' "I'm Into Somethin' Good"—contend with dreck that gets thicker with each disc.

None of which prevented the box from finishing 76th Pazz & Jop on just 13 voters' wild support. And though most of its electoral oomph came from old-timers, I know several thirtyish musos who love it to pieces. Note too that Scott Plagenhoef's insightful Pitchfork review came with an insane 9.8 rating. Can Plagenhoef or Farber possibly believe that on strictly musical grounds the Velvelettes' "He Was Really Sayin' Somethin'" or the Chiffons' "I Have a Boyfriend," to name two perfectly pleasant above-50th-percentile selections, are half as thrilling as anything on Girl Group Greats (except "Johnny Get Angry," I mean)? It could be argued that overexposure has rubbed the thrill off the classics for anyone too young to be nostalgic about them, but where does that leave my plumbers? I propose a less honorable explanation: the collector myopia in which every half-decent B side is a work of genius for the cognoscenti, buffered by the indie bias against all mass-market mechanisms. Both writers hope to rewrite musical history even if it means distorting the aural evidence.

Which brings me to a rewrite on behalf of a later girl group, though they'd have buried you in sarcasm if you'd called them that—for a while, they were so paranoid about stereotyping they nixed distaff openers. For a hot late-alt minute in 1995, the Jennifer Trynin Band, as the thirtyish leader of that female-led one-gal-two-guys g-b-d struggled manfully to bill herself, set off a biz feeding frenzy. The two resulting Warner albums—the spiky DIY Cockamamie and the softer long-after-the-gold-rush Gun Shy Trigger Happy—are now available at Amazon Marketplace for one cent apiece pluspostageandhandling. But Trynin's most recent creative endeavor—meaning her new memoir, not her guitarist role in Boston's barely existent Loveless—could jack her price up pronto.

Trynin's Everything I'm Cracked Up to Be did for me what Cockamamie never did until I read her book—grabbed and held. Scanning a page before filing it away, I kept going for 15, then went back to the beginning and swallowed the thing lickety-split. Just as it helped that I once heard "My Boyfriend's Back" in a Bronx garage, it helped that I recognized some of Trynin's dramatis personae—especially "Lola," a&r goddess Karin Berg. But I've read enough biz books to be certain this is one of the best. It describes the evil mystery of recoupability more clearly than Steve Albini himself, and makes an ideal companion to Michael Azerrad's unnecessarily male Our Band Could Be Your Life. Trynin's story is no less painful than Azerrad's, but it's less embittered. The dizzying blizzard of the courtship period deflates into the dehumanizing meet-and-greet grind of the promo tour with surreal suddenness, and soon you feel how, in that grrrl-crazy post–Liz Phair time, pressures that had always been hard on guys were even worse for women. Maybe the Donnas screw their male groupies (and maybe not). Trynin thinks about her boyfriend and becomes embroiled in a tortured, sporadic flirtation with her needy bass player—which beats the phone calls where "Head Honcho" tells her to smile more.

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