Like a yard marker on a muddy football field, the line between camp and sincerity has been trampled so many times by New Wave bands lately that you can't tell when someone is straddling it or crossing it. Take the recent proliferation of songs recycled from AM radios of the mid-'60s. Any New Wave band worth its leather ensemble performs at least one -- or does originals that sound like vintage Mel's Car Hop.
The Tourist, for example, on their debut American album, "Reality Effect" (Epic JE 36386), do the 1964 Dusty Springfield nugget, "I Only Want to Be With You." Are they serious? Are we supposed to reconsider the dumb lyrics in light of our hard-earned maturity, or simply get a nostalgia rush? From the Tourists' rendition, we discover that "I Only Want . . ." remains a nifty song; that singer Ann Lennox, though she tries, can't top Dusty Springfield; and that it's still a great two minutes, maybe the best two minutes on the album. The sharp chord changes, the B-movie dramatics, and the compelling choruses allow the Tourists -- an otherwise rather drabsounding contingent -- to leap off the vinyl and connect with us. Hey! we say, we knew something 16 years ago.
But the United Kingdom-based Tourists, and their tour guide-songwriter Peet Coombes, haven't stopped there in their excursion through sounds gone by. Coombes' originals combine familiar snatches of Byrds, Searchers, Moody Blues, It's a Beautiful Day, and the Who's "Happy Jack" era. The band, dominated by Ann Lennox's keyboards (including an overused string synthesizer) also puts up a churning wall of distorted New Wave rhythm -- and schizophrenia sets in. Neither of the two vocalists, Coombes and Lennox, comes through clearly above the murky mix. Ann Lennox in particular is often misused: She sounds best in the hair-to-the-waist, dress-to-the-floor mold of Renaissance's singer Annie Halsam. Indeed, her best moment comes on "The Loneliest Man in the World", which sounds lifted from the Renaissance canon. But more often she is in the role of punk-cut toughie. Only in the final cut, "Fool's Paradise," does the band successfully mesh its individual talents to form a sound of its own, with a neat 12-string guitar and a good vocal by Lennox -- the Tourists having done with ventures into the '60s finally begin to make new music.
Another band that borrows from the past is Boston's Robin Lane and the Chartbusters. But the source here is not so much a series of riffs, but a spirit -- that of the necrophilia-rock of the grief-racked girl groups who mourned departed teen angels. "Robin Lane and the Chartbusters" (Warners, Disk 3424) sounds like an eerie return of tone of the Shangra-Las, dressed in leather tatters, coming to tell us what hell is like -- with smiles on their faces.
Yes, there is some coyness, and an occasional metaphor as mixed as "We're like dead rats in a maze -- Floating by on the river of life." But there is also an uncannily captivating melodic sense in Lane's songs, and not a bad one in the bunch. The Chartbusters, who include some refugees from the way Modern Lovers, play so cleanly and passionately that the record sounds as fresh as any disc since the first Dire Straits effort. The spiritedness transcends the maschochistic cast of Lane's lyrics; in fact, it adds to them to create a slap-happy pop tour-defarce that somehow doesn't degenerate to self-parody.
Best of all is the assertive singing of Robin Lane, who hasn't been heard from since her backup chores on Neal Young's 1969 "Round and Round." Her husky, chesty voice is just perfect for the desperate, help-me tone of her songwriting.
At times, when the guitars are reaching operatic crescendos, the bass line is pulsing like a wrist artery about to pop, and Robin Lane, voice thick with panic, is urging some unseen tormenter to assassinate her mind, that elusive line between camp and candidness seems forever eradicated. It is a new language Robin Lane is forging, made of moldy 45s, unsterilized syringes, and the latest issue of Billboard. Dusty Springfield would approve.