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Adventurous women lead way in music world

Stewart Oksenhorn

Women already ruled the rest of the world, so it was probably only a matter of time before they ruled the music world.And rule they do. Women at the top of the music charts are no longer an anomaly or a passing fad or even something to marvel at, it’s a fact of life. Despite being easily outnumbered by men in the music field, women are making the biggest impact in music these days.Easily the most critically acclaimed album of last year was Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”; not far behind was Lucinda Williams’ “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.” While bands made up of young guys often seem stuck together in the same sound-alike rut, chick singers like Gillian Welch, Laura Love, Ani DiFranco, Liz Phair, PJ Harvey, Courtney Love and Morcheeba’s Skye Edwards are expanding sounds in a variety of worthwhile directions. Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” was the biggest-selling debut CD ever; Jewel’s “Pieces of You” was only a few million behind. Celine Dion, the Spice Girls, Shania Twain, Mariah Carey and Faith Hill, for reasons that escape me, sell tons of albums.Following are reviews of some recently released CDs with women leading the way. PJ Harvey, “Is This Desire?” produced by Flood, Head & Polly Jean Harvey (Island) Polly Jean has a singular voice – manic and creepy and beautiful and affecting all at the same time – and she knows just how to use it. Listen to “The Wind,” one of several standout tracks on “Is This Desire?” and you will hear how to make music that gets under the skin. The song begins with Harvey whispering just loud enough to be heard over some atmospheric keyboard and synthesizer sounds. The intro ends with Harvey coaxing the listener: “Listen to the wind blow, listen to the wind blow.” And Harvey’s voice is that wind, as she leaps into a tense and eerie, but also comforting story of Catherine: “See her in her chapel, high up on the hill/She must be so lonely.”But Harvey doesn’t need to whisper to get our attention. On “The Sky Lit Up,” her voice matches the manic, building pace of the song, until she is screaming, “The sky! The sky!” in a high, thin wail.And Harvey’s writing is as complex as her voice, and the production of “Is This Desire?” is as complex as her writing. Harvey takes nature’s imagery – wind, sky, trees, gardens, rivers – and turns them not into beautiful, gentle things but forces that might explode at any moment. She takes sexual desire and turns it into anger and loneliness: “Catherine De Barra, you’ve murdered my thinking/I gave you my heart, you left the thing stinking,” she sings in “Catherine.” And “Perfect Day Elise,” as you might imagine, describes anything but a perfect day: “She turned her back on him, facing the frame/Said, ‘Listen Joe, don’t you come here again.'” All the while, keyboards and drums and violins play quietly but insistently in the background.Is this brilliant? Yes, most definitely. Joan Jones, “Starlite Criminal,” produced by Nick DiDia (Third Rail Records/Hollywood Records) “Starlite Criminal” begins with a smoky piano-and-trumpet intro to the first song, “Come B45,” and it sounds like the CD will be a jazzy delight. Quickly enough, Jones jumps in with her voice and “Starlite Criminal” turns into a different sort of affair, pop and rock fueled by Jones’ voice. But it is a delight still the same, as Joan Jones announces her presence much as PJ Harvey did with her 1992 debut, “Dry” – with real-deal authority.Jones doesn’t quite come out of nowhere with “Starlite Criminal”; she is the former lead singer of Los Angeles rock band Sun60. But this is her solo debut, and it shows an impressive musical vision at work.Jones shows she can have fun with a song. “Party” is a lighthearted come-on: “Everybody wants to come to my party wearing nothing at all/Everybody wants to come to my party, clothing’s optional,” coos Jones in a high-pitched voice to a Wurlitzer accompaniment. But Jones can also cut deeper. “Come B45” is another come-on, but with greater mystery and maturity. “Everyday Down” is a declaration about living in the moment that doesn’t need to resort to phrases like “living in the moment.”The song title “Get a Life” is annoying – haven’t had enough of that phrase – and the song itself shows Jones can still demonstrate some questionable taste. But there are enough high points – the catchy “Wide Eyed Devil,” the soft “Change (Won’t Be Good)” – to make this a worthwhile CD. Laura Love, “Shum Ticky,” produced by Love (Mercury) Nobody is doing what Laura Love has been doing, which up to now, had been mixing bluegrass sounds with African rhythms for a hybrid tagged with the label “Afro-Celtic.” With “Shum Ticky,” Love moves beyond such a simple categorization, but she is still doing things no one else is doing.For example: How many chick singers spend not one but two songs paying tribute to their butts? Only Love, with the chantlike “Mahbootay” (“Mahbootay, mah big ol’ bootay/I buy it, I buy it presents”) and the voice party “Give Me Five” (“Who’s got a big ol’ butt?/Yeah, I got a big ol’ butt”).And Love offers more than tributes to her can. “Woe Is Me” uses both biblical scripture and children’s fairy tales to tell just how strange a place this world is. “Aha Me a Riddle I Day” and “The Clapping Song” are built around seeming nonsense chants, but Love’s yodeling voice and way with rhythm and sound make literal meaning superfluous.Another neat thing about “Shum Ticky” is the instrumentation Love uses; her band is made up of primarily of fiddle, drum, bass and acoustic guitar, with pump organ and pedal steel fleshing out the sound. But “Shum Ticky” is mostly about what unusually interesting things can be done with the human voice. Joni Mitchell, “Taming the Tiger,” produced by Mitchell (Reprise) There are many bits of goods news about the latest disc from Mitchell. She still follows her own muse, sounding only like her self and making no concessions to current pop sounds. Mitchell’s voice is in fine shape. And she doesn’t seem to have lost her exploratory ways despite advancing age and declining health.But there’s one big load of bad news, too, and that’s that “Taming the Tiger” is not a particularly good album. The sound throughout is marked by a thick, soupy blend of Mitchell’s keyboards and guitars and Wayne Shorter’s saxophone. None of the instrumental sounds are particularly distinctive; it all sounds like one big ball of unformed cheese. The songs melt into one another; precious little stands out from this mass.This tiger may have been tamed too much for its own good.Next week: more reviews of CDs by chick singers, including Jewel and Alanis Morissette.


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