Portland’s Dear Nora was Katy Davidson and a constantly changing line up of friends and accomplices. For 1999’s Fall is Not to Fail cassette, which these recordings come from, Katy was joined by vocalist and drummer Marianna Ritchey and bassist Ryan Wise. Dear Nora is known for making records that can be both mellow as well as rocky. In Make You Smile’s case, Dear Nora shakes, jumps, bops, and bursts.
The songs are all quick blasts of cheerful punk-pop with a burning energy that makes one want to get up and move about. In true punk fashion, each track clocks in less than two and a half minutes each and there are only four songs on the E.P. so it’s quite easy to play it from start to finish in one sitting. The fuzzily distorted guitars and drums drive and accentuate each track without being too distracting. The lyrics are sung with a defiant naivety that calls attention to what’s actually being said. There is actually a set of lyrics from the tune, “When You Write a Bad Song”, that talks about one of the very reasons I love this release:
“It’s not easy knowing when to let go, when you wanna hang on, when you write a bad song, so simple saying the things you believe but no one knows what I mean”
The lyrics are all enjoyably simple but that’s where the magic of Make You Smile lies. The words of the songs are fun, easily relatable and they orient themselves around growing pains and everyday drama. Even if the words are describing sad and doubtful moments, the tunes themselves are rather cheery and they can continue to put someone into a good mood during every listen. The emphasis on the personal everyday in the lyrics along with the straightforward minimal chord progressions bring to mind a more innocent time, so much so that it is hard to not think back to high school or earlier (especially if you were growing up in the 90s).
The production quality is warmly lo-fi which lends very well to the whole simplistic and homemade aesthetic. The record sounds like a couple of kids just having fun with a tape recorder in their living room, and according to the paper insert, it actually was just recorded one day in a living room. Even the cover, a faded blurred photograph of someone running and skipping on the shores of a lake fits in with the whole delightfully authentic D.I.Y. vibe, as it looks like it might have been taken by one of those little plastic disposable cameras.
Dear Nora may be no more today, but thank god there are some plastic relics like this one left behind. If there were two words to sum up this E.P. they would be catchy and jovial. The listener would have to be a really difficult person to not enjoy this release. The tunes, in all their distorted, roughened glory can give us energy when we’re feeling spent and the lyrics can give us hope that we are not alone when we might not know what to think, or what to say, when we’re unsure of what we’re doing with our lives, or when we might be seeing the signs that we’re not where we want to be. Dear Nora sure can still make us smile.