The hand of the free market may be invisible, but its damage is easy to spot. "Another World" (Warner Bros. 9 25321-1), the Roches' fourth album as a trio, bears the unmistakable scars of pressure to become more "commercial." Their first album in three years suffers from too much one-joke songwriting and too many MTV rock arrangements. It's as if someone decided the Roches were a comedy team that only needed synthesizers and guitar solos to make it big.
At their best, Maggie, Terre and Suzzy Roche, three sisters "from deepest New Jersey," combine feminist-folk songwriting, Bohemian humor and harmony. There are flashes of that talent on the new album but only intermittently.
One of the Roches' problems has been the diminishing role of Maggie, this sibling group's Brian Wilson. She isn't listed as the sole writer on any song, and of the four where she's listed as a cowriter, only "Weeded Out" carries the weight and subtlety she has always given the group. That song about money-squeezed farmers has evocative lyrics, an understated arrangement and enchanting harmonies.
Nothing else on the album manages all three at once. The title tune childishly wishes for "Another World" with a "constant flow of ice cream." "Face Down at Folk City" recycles tired routines about fights, pickups and drunkenness at a nightclub. "Older Girls" is an Erma Bombeck-style confession of jealousy toward successful career women.
Even humor is spoiled by the garish arrangements. The voices have to compete with overly loud drums and distracting synth solos on "Another World" and "Older Girls"; totally inappropriate fuzz-guitar keeps interrupting "Gimme a Slice" and "The Angry Young Man," a promising song that deftly sketches the plight of a brooding loner.
Five of the songs at least sound good. Suzzy's "Love to See You" is a gorgeous ballad of unrequited love that swims in harmonies, and the three cover tunes all sound ravishing. The Roches' remake of the Fleetwoods' 1959 doo-wop classic, "Come Softly to Me," uses clockwork vocal parts to sound like a giant music box. "Missing," by the sisters' brother David, is attractive though slight. Despite its silly, spacey lyrics, Mark Johnson's "Love Radiates Around" boasts a great pop hook that the sisters milk for all its worth.
A more successful album in the same vein is "No Borders Here" (Open Air, OA-0302), the second album by Toronto singer-songwriter Jane Siberry, who appears at the 9:30 club Wednesday. Siberry manages to combine the attractive folkie melodies and quirky humor of the Roches at their best with the experimental techno-rock and deadpan monologues of Laurie Anderson.
Siberry's regular synth-rock quartet gives her songs a taut muscularity without ever distracting from her witty elliptical lyrics. Siberry may float on a synthesizer cloud above the band's agitated, technological beats, or she may plug into it with a herky-jerky forcefulness. In either case, the backing creates a nervous tension that points to the ironic subtext beneath Siberry's seemingly casual tales of everyday life.
Her songs make public the running interior commentary that most of us carry on. She sizes up people at a party, the way her boyfriend eyes other women, the way someone rearranges the silverware during dinner conversation, the way a salesman glances about the room. From these flaxen observations, she spins golden insights, and does so in a beguiling, girlish voice.
Often she lapses into a spoken monologue a la Anderson to imitate conversations that only underline the absurdity of a situation. "Dancing Class" begins with idle chatter only to drift effortlessly into a meditation on aging. Symmetry ("The Way Things Have to Be") begins with random comments that snap into a clarifying realization even as the vocal snaps into the band's rhythm.
Another successful album in this art-folk genre is "Suzanne Vega" (A&M, SP6-5072), the debut of a New York singer-songwriter who performs at the Bayou tomorrow. In contrast to the humor of the Roches and Siberry, Vega describes her relationships and ambitions in terms of contradictions and conflicts that admit no easy answers.
Her music, dominated by her own acoustic guitar and fleshed out by a tasteful synth-rock band, reflects this dramatic tension with melodies that move purposefully within confined spaces and with chord progressions that seem reluctant to resolve. Vega's understated, smoky alto charges the songs with intensity even as it drains them of sentimentality.
Vega sharpens her phrases like carving knives: She says her heart is not only broken but "worn out at the knees" ("Cracking"); she describes her tears as "salt wearing down to the bone" ("Undertow"); she remarks how a queen of a woman "turns herself into a pawn" in a relationship ("Knight Moves"). These skewering lines add up to the clearest, most honest disection of romantic myths since Ferron's "Shadows on a Dime," which this impressive debut album so closely resembles.