The original rock 'n' roll revolution claimed to give pop music "back to the kids," but it was mostly the boys who got it. The current New Wave movement is finally giving rock 'n' roll to the girls, too. In New Wave, there are women as backing musicians (Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth, Joe Carrasco organist Kris Cummings, Kid Creole bassist Carol Colman), women as sexually aggressive songwriters (Blondie's Debbie Harry, the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde, the Chartbusters' Robin Lane) and the first great all-female rock band, the Go-Go's, whose debut album, "Beauty and the Beat," is currently No. 1 in the charts.
More recently New Wave has produced three gender-integrated bands that prove such a combined approach can drastically alter both the lyrics and music of rock love songs. The Waitresses, the Human Switchboard and Romeo Void have each released debut albums sabotaging pop myths about true love. Their songs scrape off the gooey salve of reassurance to expose the words and sounds of the tension between men and women.
The most accessible of the three albums is the Waitresses' "Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful?" (ZE/Polydor PD-1-6346). Its critique of romance is laced with hilarious satire and singsong, sing-along, pop melodies. The best example of the band's satiric approach is "I Know What Boys Like," the single that preceded the album. In her best nyah-nyah voice, Patty Donahue taunts: "I know what guys want . . ." The band's herky-jerky, hip-swiveling rhythm and the nursery rhyme melody underscore the effect. With its humor as a spade, the song unearths a basic female fantasy and male fear.
It was surprising, therefore, to get the album and find that song and all the others written by the band's male guitarist, Chris Butler. Butler has explained that he wrote for a female persona based on extensive research among his female friends. The resulting perspective is neither male nor female, but a rare two-sided look at sexual relationships. He avoids feminist or leftist rhetoric and focuses on practical situations. On "No Guilt," Donahue crows that she has learned to wash sweaters, call cabs and deal with landlords on her own since her boyfriend left. On the hilarious "Go On," she complains about the men she falls for: "Am I a magnet for losers? . . . I'm no social worker!"
Donahue and harmony singer Ariel Warner are backed by an all-male quintet on the album; female bassist Tracy Wormworth has since joined and will play with them at the 9:30 Club March 25-26. Ex-Tin Huey guitarist Butler, ex-Television drummer Billy Ficca, reed player Mars Williams and keyboardist Don Klayman play a fast, angular jazz-rock that has more in common with Ornette Coleman than with Phil Spector. Fortunately the metallic guitar chords and unruly sax solos are organized around a hectic dance beat and mixed beneath the catchy melodies of the vocals and keyboards. Thus the good humor of satire and the contagious energy of desire are what you hear first; the unsettling digs of sexual tension sink in later.
Like the Waitresses, Tin Huey, Rachel Sweet, Devo and Pere Ubu, the Human Switchboard comes from the hinterlands of northern Ohio. The trio, which will perform at the 9:30 Club on Saturday, includes keyboardist Myrna Marcarian, guitarist Robert Pfeifer and drummer Ron Metz, joined by various bassists and an occasional saxophonist. Marcarian and Pfeifer write the songs and sing them. Their new album, "Who's Landing in My Hangar?" (Faulty Products COPE 1), is a bracing, brooding affront to illusions of every kind. Marcarian confronts an old boyfriend who's trying to ignore her now that he's marrying someone else. Pfeifer confronts an old girlfriend who once convinced him of her romantic promises. Yet the songs never collapse into cynicism or bitterness; they steadfastly demand an honest accounting.
The music sustains this fearless demand with absorbing music that can't be easily dismissed. Marcarian plays swirling Farfisa organ with the hypnotic phrases of the great Tex-Mex rock bands. Like Elvis Costello, she transmutes this bouncy party music into nagging musical questions. She also sings an alto version of Costello's understated pop tenor. Pfeifer plays choppy reverb guitar and sing-speaks in the surly poetic style of Lou Reed. Some guys (David Bowie, Iggy Pop, David Byrne) spend their entire career futilely chasing the Lou Reed sound, and Pfeifer gets it right on his first album.
Pfeifer brings an intense focus to public disillusion on "In This Town" ("No one has to tell the kids they're broke") and to private disillusion on "No Heart" and "(I Used to) Believe in You." Every song hits hard except the one misfire: the pretentious seven-minute "Refrigerator Door." The best songs are the two co-written with Marcarian. On the album's best song, "(Say No to) Saturday's Girl," Metz's breakup drum roll sets up Marcarian's steely assertion: "This might be the right place, might be the right time to tell you what I'm thinking." It sets the tone for the whole album.
Romeo Void is a San Francisco quintet with singer/songwriter Debora Iyall backed by four men. Iyall dominates the proceedings on their 10-song debut album, "It's a Condition" (415 C-0004), and their four-song follow-up EP, "Never Say Never" (415 C-0007). The musicians draw on pop fun and jazz-funk similar to the Waitresses', while Iyall favors a brooding minimalism like the Human Switchboard. Iyall's music is patient; the enticing melodies aren't forced but unwind with a husky whisper over loping rhythms.
Iyall has an imposing voice, but she mostly uses it for whispered intimacies. Like a movie actress in close-up, Iyall transforms understatement into devastating impact. When she hisses, "I might like you better if we slept together," she brings invitation and warning into the same phrase. The EP--produced by guitarist Ric Ocasek and engineer Ian Taylor of the Cars--is harder, faster, more commercial and yet less subtle than the album produced by newcomer David Kahne. The drama on the album is so well controlled that Iyall can simply mutter the title line of "I Mean It," and make it utterly convincing.