The Rondelles’ story reads like a rock ‘n’ roll fairy tale. The group was formed by Juliet Swango (vocals, guitar), Oakley Munson (drums, organ), and Yukiko Moynihan (bass) when they were still high-schoolers in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Now in their early twenties and relocated to Washington, D.C., the group already has releases on the prestigious independent labels Smells Like Records, Teenbeat, and K to its credit. Its latest, Shined Nickels and Loose Change is, as the title suggests, a collection of odds ‘n’ ends, including tracks from previously released compilations and singles, plus six new songs.
Like the Donnas, who also started recording while still in high school, the Rondelles are about old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll energy coupled with punk attitude. Both groups fashion amusing lyrics based on the stereotypical preoccupations of young people. While the Donnas celebrate the joys of “Doin’ Donuts”, on “TV Zombie” the Rondelles lament about being in love with a couch potato: “I’ve got a crush on a boy I know / He don’t know how I love him so / He watches TV all the time / How I wish he were mine, all mine”. Musically, though, the Rondelles are quite different from the Donnas, trading in the latter’s hard rock/heavy metal bent for the sounds of 1960s garage bands and girl groups. The handclaps and cheerleader-style backing vocals on the breakup song “Safety in Numbers”, for example, are pure pop concoctions, but the raggedy musical backing gives the track more of an edge. Thick, choppy bass lines punctuate a number of the songs, and Swango’s guitar is savagely affecting throughout. Munson’s “mini organ” lines, however, are the real delight. His riffs on “Shimmybecker” and “TV Zombie” are sweet pop perfection that will have you dancing like mad.
While there are a number of great tracks (the sly, dirty rocker “The Fox”, to name one), the song that makes Shined Nickels worth every shined nickel you’ll pay for it is the cover of the Shimmybeckers’ “Cafeteria Rock”. A garage-rock paean to the joys of the high-school cafeteria, the track includes such lyrical gems as “I want a bean burrito, extra jalapeno” and the refrains “Food fight!” and “Cafeteria rock rock rock rock”. The recording is so primitive and murky that many of the words are indecipherable, and there is zero chance of discerning any of the musical subtleties, but it doesn’t matter one bit. This is rock ‘n’ roll at its bratty, sloppy, energetic best.
Don’t interpret all this enthusiasm to mean that Shined Nickels is its without flaws, because it’s not. This is a compilation after all, and while its stylistic range is impressive, it also means the album isn’t terribly cohesive. Like any band that has been playing live and recording for a few years, the Rondelles are becoming more polished, and with that comes the inevitable musical growth. Judging from the newer songs, it seems like the group is headed into a more polished pop direction. The straightforward pop-rock cover of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” and the pop version of the hymn “Angels We’ve Heard on High” have received a good deal of praise, but they seem too self-consciously precious for these ears. The closer, “Fort Surrounded (Turbo Mix)”, is something different — a droning noise experiment far removed from a mainstream sound — but it lacks the bratty energy of the earlier material and suggests a more mature musical direction is on the horizon for the band. Hopefully, the Rondelles will be able to mature without losing too much of the youthful exuberance that made them so great in the first place.