Not only did Edie Brickell & New Bohemians' 1988 debut album (and its first single, "What I Am") hit the pop Top 10, but it also won rave reviews from critics entranced by Brickell's radiant good looks, sweet girlish voice and creative-writing-class lyrics. When the band began to tour, however, observers began to point out that the Dallas hippie band couldn't play very well, that Brickell's voice often sounded thin and that her lyrics had little to offer beyond a Popeye philosophy ("I yam what I yam") and cleverness for cleverness's sake. "Ghost of a Dog" (Geffen), the group's second album, suggests that Brickell and her band-mates are neither as good as the initial notices claimed nor as bad as the subsequent backlash insisted.
The sextet possesses modest but undeniable assets that come through far better on its records than in its live shows. Those assets have little to do with Brickell's overly praised lyrics, which are clever at best ("a kiss in the car and a drive in the bed") and trite at worst ("I'm feeling feelings like I never felt before"). The band's real advantages are its very catchy melodic hooks; Brickell's disarming, birdlike voice; and the band's enthusiastic Grateful Dead-like arrangements. An appealing childlike innocence informs all these qualities, and when they come together, the band captures that feeling of naive youthful idealism that younger fans believe can go on forever and that the rest of us remember fondly.
The new album's first single, "Mama Help Me," sports a snazzy up-tempo hook that Brickell chirps with an excited stutter, and the band gives the song such hippie motifs as a conga intro, rattling two-fisted piano and a slide guitar solo. Even catchier is "Black & Blue," which sounds like a sweeter, younger, poppier version of 10,000 Maniacs' "Trouble Me." "Carmelito" is a hippie take on Tex-Mex music and Latin immigration, but it boasts a very tasty melody (reinforced by Jo-el Sonnier's accordion) and the most cogent narrative Brickell has ever written. Also likable are "Strings of Love" and "Woyaho."
Less impressive are the five drumless acoustic tracks that only point up the musical limitations of Brickell and guitarist Kenny Withrow; this is a pop band, and it needs fleshed-out pop arrangements. If the band is to develop, it should be in the direction of the three five-minute-plus numbers that try to fuse Brickell's singer-songwriter persona with the band's Deadhead jamming instincts. It doesn't quite work, because neither the songwriting nor the playing is strong enough to sustain such long songs, but it could be a potent mix if the participants ever hone their skills.
Kate & Anna McGarrigle: 'Heartbeats Accelerating' A singer-songwriter project with a lot more substance -- both lyrical and musical -- is "Heartbeats Accelerating" (Private Music), the first album in seven years from Kate & Anna McGarrigle. The Canadian sisters may not challenge Brickell on the pop charts, but they have been admired for years by critics and fellow artists (the McGarrigles' songs have been recorded by Linda Ronstadt, Judy Collins, Marianne Faithfull, Maria Muldaur, Emmylou Harris and others), and this new batch of songs should endure long after today's hits have faded from consciousness.
Producer Pierre Marchand uses synthesizers and studio effects to create the same kind of watery, moody ambiance for the McGarrigles that his mentor, Daniel Lanois, created on the Neville Brothers' "Yellow Moon" and Bob Dylan's "Oh Mercy." The result is a sympathetic frame that only reinforces the focus on the sisters' voices and their acoustic instruments: accordion, banjo, guitar and piano. It's the best of both worlds, as the synths and rhythm section create a dramatic tension that the McGarrigles' folk methodology can then exploit.
The songs are written from a single parent's perspective (each McGarrigle has two children), confronting the singer's diminished chances for romance and the ever-increasing threats to her children. Both the songs and the performances avoid the self-righteousness and sentimentality of most parent-view songs; the McGarrigles willingly confess their doubts and bafflements. For example, Kate's "I'm Losing You," with its sturdy gospel piano foundation, captures both a mother's resentments and affection in the form of an ambivalent letter to a son who has moved away from home (and Kate's son, Rufus Wainwright, sings harmony).
Kate's "I Eat Dinner" is a masterly voice-and-piano meditation on the fate of the single mother -- eating leftovers and soda pop at the kitchen table because her hunger for candlelight romance has faded. Anna's title tune describes that lingering hunger; she marries folk-dance repetition and avant-garde minimalism as her lyrical vocal yearns for love with no idea where it might come from. Anna's "Hit and Run Love" uses shimmering vibes and the extended metaphor of an auto accident to describe the disorienting effects of what happens when love does come -- and then goes.
The album's most unsettling song is "Leave Me Be," written by both sisters. The opening verses are a daughter's demand that she has the right to choose her own friends and lovers, but the eerie drone of Kate's synth and Joel Zifkin's fiddle set up the final scene, in which a father is telephoned late at night to be told that his daughter has been murdered by her oil-rig roustabout boyfriend. The lyrics don't pass judgment, but the music suggests the dark, disturbing contradictions of the theme. Just as powerful is Kate's "Mother Mother," a child's plea for a mother's protection from the world's dangers ("Build for me a house of stone; lock it up when you leave me alone"), which are suggested by quirky, discomforting accordion bleats.