Sweetness and Fight


The Hissyfits have a feminine sweetness with voice inflections that aren’t so sweet, multipart female vocals that play off each other but come together for beautiful harmonies, rough fuzz from the guitar. The music is full of reversals and contrasts.

The sensibility is hard to define: sort of romance as something doomed and precious but enlivened by little flicks of the knife. This could be annoying as the basis of an actual relationship, but it’s a good framework for music and its indefinite emotions. In fact, what’s most interesting about the Hissyfits’ Letters From Frank is that I can’t get a fix on its emotional tone. This ambiguity seems quite deliberate.

Lead singer Princess sounds little girly, but not in a cute way—her high-pitched vocals just haven’t lost their baby talk. And I can’t tell whether the mood is sweet or bitchy (in other words, it’s both). The words are designed for ambivalence: “Daniel is staring at me with his sick fantastic eyes.” Many of the lyrics are built on just a few phrases, the phrases reversing meaning as a song goes on. “Today Is the Day” repeats the words “I’m so glad you came into my world” in an insanely beautiful melody that struggles to be heard through static and guitar fuzz. Then the notes of the song break up (as the joy breaks up, perhaps).

“Something Wrong” is about a perfect love, or a perfectly painful love. “He said, ‘You look so pretty, in this light it hurts my eyes.’ ” (This line reminds me of the first episode of the teen epic My So-Called Life, where Ricky asks Rayanne and Angela what they’d most want a lover to say when commencing sex. [Rayanne: “This won’t take long.”] Angela suggests, “You’re so beautiful, it hurts to look at you.” Ricky tells Angela that this is wonderful, while Rayanne snickers. Then Rayanne goes on to get smashed and smashed up, flirting and picking fights; she has to be rescued by police. As she and Angela are being taken home in a patrol car, a giggly drunk Rayanne gets suddenly lucid, stares at Angela, says to her in earnest, “You’re so beautiful it hurts to look at you,” then stumbles from the car up the steps to her home.) The Hissyfits like to sing about eyes. A window to the ambivalence of the soul. At the end of “So Sweet,” the singer instructs the poor Daniel creature to look into her eyes, as if to tell him that she’s the dangerous one, the one with sick amazingness in her gaze. It’s like a contest to see who has the most captivating danger.

In “Something Wrong,” in contemplating an apparently perfect guy, the singer goes, over and over, “There must be something wrong with me,” since the relationship—obviously, on principle—is headed for ruin. And as she keeps repeating, “There must be something wrong with me,” it could be an accusation against herself: Why is she walking away from this perfect love? But it feels more like bragging, as if she’s got an edge on romance; so if it’s doomed to go wrong, at least it will go wrong on her own terms. But she has not defined the tone as accusatory or bragging, so it gets to be either. Or both.