If the Doors, the Eagles and X embodied the spirit of Southern California in their respective decades -- and who are more likely candidates? the Association? the Souther Hillman Furay Band? the Germs? -- then things haven't changed very much during L.A.'s boom years. Take away each band's hard-rock melodrama and what's left is mostly bad poetry and cheap mysticism, whether Jim Morrison's lizard-king prattling or John Doe and Exene Cervenka's Catholic-guilt whimpering. With Doe and Cervenka elevated to the solo-album aristocracy, that's even more obvious than when guitarist Billy Zoom -- X's under-recognized auteur -- was driving their blather past listeners at such high speeds that it blurred.
Exene Cervenka: 'Running Sacred' Doe's recent solo debut, "Meet John Doe," is nothing special, but it does at least try to keep its feet on the ground. His former singing partner (and ex-wife) Exene Cervenka makes no such concessions on her "Running Sacred" (RNA). Singing lessons may have taken the sharp (and flat) edges off her voice, leaving her without even the ability to sound obnoxious, and musically "Sacred" may sound like formula solo-album roots-rock, but Cervenka's neo-beatnik poesy has never been so thoroughly indulged.
On "Just Another Perfect Day," written with Doe and photographer Viggo Mortenson, Cervenka warbles, "Get the life out of your mind/ Squeeze your thinking blind/ Shoreless beer-knowers bellied/ In a bond-barren manship/ They are fully-phrased incompetents." Billy?
Sorry, Zoom doesn't play on this album. Cervenka's latest band, which performs at the 9:30 club tomorrow, is led by Tony Gilkyson, who replaced Zoom in X and Doe as Exene's mate. He's capable of following Cervenka's meanderings through country, folk, gospel and lite-jazz, and provides an agreeably chiming riff on the album's opening track, "Slave Labor." Musically, that's the most congenial song, but Cervenka's attempt to marry X's old (and rather suspect) blue-collar consciousness to her new status as an out-of-the-closet poet is unseemly: "Everybody has a boss," she sings, "My boss is my heart" -- nice organizational chart if you can get it -- "So you see that I/ Can never quit my job." How about retirement, though, Exene? Or a nice sabbatical? Surely a sabbatical is a possibility?
'Willi Jones' Posing in an empty rail yard with black jumpsuit, blond ringlets and tambourine on the cover of her eponymous Geffen album, Willi Jones could hardly be trying harder to keep up with the Ricki Lee Joneses. The credits offer little to dispute the first impression: Such wild cards as Willie Dixon (who duets on "Long Legged Goddess") and ex-Stooge Scott Thurston (who plays the occasional keyboard) are hardly enough to offset the usual lineup of L.A. hacks (Waddy Watchtel, J.D. Souther, ex-Eagle Bernie Leadon).
Still, the album's first songs, which showcase Jones's ability to provide (multitracked) "hey hey heys," "Dessie Maes" and "yeah yeah yeahs," are surprisingly engaging. These songs have a sprightly kick that belies the tired busted-love and nation-going-to-hell imagery provided by Jones and her co-writers (most frequently Roger Greenawalt and Parker Coleman). After that, though, she gets trapped by "Cages and Walls," a bloated mini-pop-opera of almost Jim Steinmanesque proportions, and never really breaks free. The subsequent excursions into wimp- ("Santa Ana") and blues-rock ("Ain't It a Shame") never recapture the opening trio's verve.
Jones, who plays the Bayou next Wednesday, actually has a big voice well suited to blues belting, but her delivery is another matter. When trading lines like "well I see smoke and I know that means fire" with Dixon, she sounds like she's auditioning for a country-blues musical comedy revue. And as the music becomes less diverting, Jones's choice of subjects -- "us girls" who let their men think they're the bosses in "Southern Hospitality," a phone-sex-dispensing heroine in "Livin' on Change" -- becomes more conspicuous. These are notions definitely best left buried under a chorus of multitracked hey-hey-heys.
Victoria Williams: 'Swing the Statue' Far more distinctive is ex-Geffenite Victoria Williams's "Swing the Statue" (Rough Trade), which transforms folk, country swing and zydeco into art music. Part oh-wow New Ageism and part Laurie Anderson mannerism, "Swing" is often annoying, and Williams's gravelly Betty Boop voice and eccentric delivery (she sounds like a female version of David Thomas in his Wooden Birds period) should make for plenty of lunges toward the stop button. Yet there's something to this.
Williams's circle is a slightly hipper group of L.A. hacks (thanked or credited are T-Bone Burnette, Steven Soles, Mitchell Froom, Hal Wilner, and David and Andy Williams, the crooner's kids), whom she leads in sing-alongs of "Kumbayah" while she extols "The Holy Spirit." Sometimes, as on that song, she confounds skeptics of her neo-transcendentalist wonder with sheer musicality and enthusiasm. Other times, as on "Summer of Drugs," she's undeniably original: "Sister got bit by a copperhead snake in the woods behind the house/ Nobody was home so I grabbed her foot and sucked that poison out/ Sister got better in a month or so when the swelling it went down/ And I started off my teenage years with the poison in my mouth," the song begins, which is nigh irresistible.
Leave it to Williams to be inspired by venom, which is apparently just another gift of the God who is repeatedly thanked in the credits. The Gerard Manley Hopkins of indie-pop, she elsewhere extols the moon, old friends, weeds and -- in "Wobbling," a song that alone exceeds the album's preciousness quota -- the shaky steps of a newborn robin that hasn't yet learned to fly. In "Lift Him Up," Williams sings of bringing "joy to your soul," and the oddest and most beautiful moments -- which are often the same ones -- on "Swing" do just that. But even her fans will probably skip "Wobbling."