New York in 1978 boasted a neo-folk revival centered around a crew of invigorating new singer-songwriters: Steve Forbert, the Roches, Willie Nile, George Gerdes. Debut albums by the first three were all critically aclaimed. (Gerdes has not recorded since the mid-'70s and an earlier Roches album features only two out of three sisters -- which ain't bad, as Meatloaf would say.) Forbert's new album, his third, and the Roches' followup, show how far apart these voices have grown.
Forbert's "Little Stevie Orbit" (Nemperor JZ 36595) continues the stylistic decay evident on last year's "Jackrabbit Slim." Whereas "Alive on Arrival" (the first effort) was inspiring, the latter works have moved increasingly to "entertainment." Forbert simply tries too hard. The Mississippi boy who absorbed country, rock, blues and pop influences on his journey to New York City seems suddenly over-whelmed by them all. "Orbit" has too many planets moving haphazardly within it.
Who needs an 82-second instrumental from a songwriter whose downright clever lyrics -- joined to an ingratiating voice -- have drawn listeners down seldom-traveled roads to small towns and big dreams? the somber, brooding lyrics of "Get Well Soon," "One More Glass of Beer" and "Lonely Girl" are full of sloppy similes and dull metaphors. And even though Forbert uses names like "Song For Katrina" or Laughter Lou (Who Needs You?)" his songs have become less personal as his vision has become more universal. Forbert's exaggerated imagery -- "I'm here upon this circumstance called Earth" -- shows just how hard he is trying to connect. Forbert's abilities are showcased, but not his achievements.
Things are not helped by Pete Solley's production of Forbert's own singing. Forbert sounds like a cross between Dylan and Eric Andersen, with liberal doses of John Prine and Dave Van Ronk thrown in -- but that didn't matter two years ago when he trusted the power of his songs and sang them without affectation.
This time he sounds forced, either pushing too hard ("Laughter Lou" and "Schoolgirl") or holding back too much ("Katrina" and "A Visitor"). Solley's heavy-handed production is simply unflattering, confused, directionless. Too often Forbert's melodies, already less fluent and adventurous, are cluttered; flashes of energy and enthusiasm are followed by tired stretches of the obvious. In trying to pull out all the stops, Forbert and Solley have let the music go down the drain. Or as Forbert himself sings in "One More Glass of Beer": Once I was a shepherd boy and made up lots of songs Once I was a gust of wind, a brief but mighty gale .
Thankfully, the Roches have kept the faith, though their new album, "Nurds" (Warner Brothers BSK 3475) has a slightly fuller sound than last year's Robert Fripp-produced minimalism. Once again, the voices mix the front, weaving in and out of each other -- full-throated renderings of quirky, catchy melodies and sweet and sour lyrics.
There are two non-Roche songs on "Nurds," and they point up the sisters' strengths and influences. Cole Porter's "It's Bad For Me" sounds like a Cappella Andrews Sisters, all hesitant romance and gentle apprehension. The Roches' echo and update the '30s mood with an '80s sensibility in their own "The Death of Suzzy Roche," the bright, bouncy and deadly observations of a laundromat worker who does not appreciate one sister's haughty behavior.
"Factory Girl" is a traditional Irish ballad, bleak and regal in the manner of middle period Steeleye Span. It's a showcase for Maggie Roche's remarkably low voice, and also for the finely wrought counterpoints and swooping harmonies that make the Roches so interesting to listen to. There are also some easy targets for the Roches wry wit: the title song; a left-handed tribute to '50s girl-groups in "Bobby's Song"; and a strange, confusing ditty titled "The Boat Family."
The unique strength of "Nurds" is perhaps best expressed on "One Season," in which Maggie Roche builds up a solid case for separation with constant and haunting refrain of "I've got to get away from you" only to turn it around in the last line with "I want to get away with you." It's chilling, real, unsettling.