Two of these three records will haunt legitimate New Wavers like letters from old school chums who've wound up peddling encyclopedias in Utah; the third is like a telegram from a friend who has come into an inheritance.

Lene Lovich and Rachel Sweet both debuted last year with colorful yet relevant departures from established punk canons.

Musically, each in her own fashion filtered New Wave's raw energy through immediately distinctive and sometimes kooky stylization.

Further, they skillfully expropriated punk's blunt iconoclastic fire for subtle, personal, distinctly female ruminations.

Both women went on to enjoy significant commercial success, especially in Britain. Not surprisingly, their appeal seemed to stem from their stylistic rather than textual efforts.

And again, not surprisingly, their follow-up albums emphasize the former at the expense of the latter.

On "Protect the Innocent" (Stiff/-Columbia NJC-36337), Sweet indulges in pure and simple technical exhibitionism.

The material here is a neutral backdrop -- undemanding and unobtrusive. The melodies seek no highs or lows, no clever twists that might grab one's attention away from deep contemplation of Rachel's naked ability. Likewise, the lyrics are nearly transparent, composed almost entirely of trite, predictable, inconsequential small talk.

Sweet's voice is undoubtedly a formidable instrument, but she might as well sing scales as apply it to weak material like this.

It would have been much better if she'd had to fight for the spotlight with more challenging material rather than rigging the bout. It's made for a dull fight and a complacent fighter.

Lee Lovich suffers almost as badly on "Flex" (Stiff-Epic NJE-36308), though from a very different type of problem.

Rather than becoming more straightforward and less stylized, Lovich has grown still more idiosyncratic and affected -- to the point of self-caricature. g

Her trademark quirks have come to entirely dominate her material: the Slavic frou frou; mock-dramatics; operatic whines. There's scarcely room left to turn in, let alone loft the sort of soaring melodies and sturdy rhythms that rendered her debut so charming. Similarly, her subject matter has become much too precious and self-referential for its own good. Once, her lightly mythicized outlook offered a fresh (if not always relevant) perspective on all-to-familiar problems; now it suggests solipsistic escapism.

"Flex" winds up being one big in-joke, from its pointlessly obtuse cover to the dithering, contrived camping contained within.

Both "Flex" and "Protect the Innocent" are painfil letdowns, especially for those who had hoped that Lovich and Sweet might trigger a new renaissance for women rock 'n' rollers (as opposed to women whose job is singing rock 'n' roll songs).

New York's Lydia Lunch, however, offers fresh hope. her solo debut, "Queen of Siam," (Ze ZEA-33006), is easily the most striking album released so far this year, and may well prove to be one of New Wave's enduring classics.

With stunning subtlety and power, Lunch projects visions out of the dark recesses previously plumbed by the likes of Dylan and, of course, Lou Reed and his sundry acolytes.

In Lunch's mind, life is a mere prologue to death -- a gloomy, largely pointless exercise in suffering.

Her songs are filled with images of abused children, black candles, loveless sex, urban decay, et al. As explained in her adaptation of Billie Holiday's "Gloomy Sunday," the only means to grace or nobility lies beyond the mortician's work-slab.

The songs here are all Lunch originals expect for "Sunday" and The Classics IV's "Spooky." On side one, a small post-Punk ensemble led by Pat Irwin provides an appropriately skeletal atmosphere: dank, doomy keyboards; slithering off-key guitar; mournful sax. Honestly spookified stuff.

The flip side boasts a surprising big band sound courtesy of The Billy Ver Planck Orchestra (also responsible for the "Flintstones" theme music -- very '50s, very film noir. A brilliant gambit.

It's not really totally morose, either. Lunch demands confrontation with a harsh truth without wallowing in it.

"Atomic Bongos" is a frenzied dance-a-thon in the style of her former group, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. "Spooky" is rendered with genuine pleasure.

"Queen of Siam" is about learning to live, really, but in a new and more empirical way. Lydia Lunch faces up to all the facts.

"Queen of Siam" is simply a tour de force: imaginatively conceived; impeccably executed.