In her sleeve notes to Happy Doing What We’re Doing, Texas singer Elizabeth McQueen explains why she devotes the album to covers of ’70s pub rock: “The thing about Pub Rock is that we can relate. It’s what we do nearly every night—we play roots music in bars.” Well, no. The pubbers played in pubs, not bars, and whatever pubs are actually like (I’ve never been to one; haven’t visited Britain since age 11 when I spent my time at the Museum of Science and Industry while heds and kickers from the newsstands outside shouted about Watts riots eight time zones away), their image in song and story lacks the romance of a bar: The pub is where you hang out with your mates. But it’s not where you meet the mystery woman, not where you gather a scene and hatch an art movement or try a new mode of dress. It’s rather your home away from home, or your home instead of home, when you want to get away from the missus. It can be a male conclave, a bulwark, a place to hold your territory and get sloshed with your friends. But it’s not where you plant the seeds of adventure. Highwaymen and brigands don’t frequent pubs, they go to taverns or inns. Maybe they even go to Publick Houses, but not to the old homey pub. In the ’70s and ’80s, the Brits finally had to import the word bar to suggest the promise of the night. (Experts in the public image of pubs say that my assessment is right except at times when it isn’t: “An art movement was indeed hatched in Soho pubs, but some would say that British culture’s inability to cut away from careful mediocrity into revolutionary style resides in the fact that its Art Revolutionaries only had pubs to gather in.”)
Here in the U.S., we only heard pub rock’s new wave aftermath: Graham Parker and the Rumour, Ian Dury & the Blockheads, Squeeze, Nick Lowe (“She was a winner/that became a doggy’s dinner/She never meant that much to me/woh-oh-oagh, poor Marie”), Elvis Costello, Bram Tchaikovsky. The music itself wasn’t devoid of romance, but it was the romance of disappointment with oneself, of carrying on bruised. And actually, the territorial tough-boy atmosphere of pubs and the hard-rock instrumentation of the bands provided cover for pub rockers to include femme-y pop sounds—from girl group to Abba—without seeming girlie themselves. So pub rock was glam’s timid cousin, maybe.
Now, Elizabeth McQueen has the advantage of being a girl, though “chick in a bar band” might require her to be one of the boys—a ballsy blues singer—or to be sweet and girlie-poo. But the stodge of bar-band land provides her with cover for experiments in style. For her, roots means “pop” as well as rock, so she puts a Debbie Harry gloss to music that would normally get a more dogged reading. And with that gloss she can go from belt-it-out soul singing to controlled lounge stylings on music that’s neither soul nor sophisticated jazz-pop. And this may be wise, since though she’s got a solid voice, she’s no Gladys Knight, and she’s no Jo Stafford, either, and she lacks the Patsy Cline genius for gliding lightly over rocking beats. McQueen is a bar-band singer, after all, and bar band is a middle ground, pop that’s not too poppy, rock that’s not too ugly. It doesn’t force her to be sultry, icy, vituperative, smooth, domineering, beseeching. But you hear all of this as potential. She finds a way to add smokiness to sweet material, and brightness to the tough stuff. “At least for the duration of the song, I was a badass,” she says of her sharp rendition of Eddie and the Hot Rods’ “All I Need Is Money.” This is poignant, and what I’m hearing is a smart cookie who pretends there’s less going on in her music than there really is.