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Chicks here, chicks there, chicks everywhere

Stewart Oksenhorn

Chick singers, chick songwriters, chick musicians have arrived full-blown on the music stage.

Despite their minority rank in backstage rooms and on the shelves of CD stores, women are arguably making the biggest impact these days in music. In the fairly well-respected Request magazine (the in-house magazine of Musicland and Sam Goody music stores), CDs by women – Lucinda Williams’ “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” and PJ Harvey’s “Is This Desire?” – occupied the top three slots in the best albums of 1998 critics poll.

Here is the second part of a set of reviews of recent CD releases by female singers. (Part one, with reviews of “Is This Desire?” Laura Love’s “Shum Ticky,” Joan Jones’ “Starlite Criminal” and Joni Mitchell’s “Taming the Tiger,” appeared in daily edition of The Aspen Times last Friday, Jan. 22.) Alanis Morissette, “Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie,” produced by Glen Ballard and Morissette (Maverick) This is the follow-up to Morissette’s monstrous debut “Jagged Little Pill,” the biggest-selling debut recording ever. How’s that for pressure?

Morissette comes through with mostly flying colors, although, with 17 songs on the new CD, it’s possible Morissette was trying to be a little too generous – or a little too thankful. But focusing on the CD as a whole, Morissette proves “Jagged Little Pill” was no fluke, 11 million teen-age girls have at least a smidgen of good taste in them, and Alanis herself is a maturing force, to be reckoned with in the long haul.

The CD opening “Front Row” is a smack in the teeth of a former lover – familiar ground for Morissette – but the production, with crashing percussion and some neat tricks with the vocal track, make things sound fresh. And Morissette can still dive into self-examination with the best of them: “I’m not made at you guardian/I’m mad at myself for spending so much time with you and your Jeckyl and Hydeness.” “Are You Still Mad” and “Sympathetic Character” are more songs of reaching out to ex-lovers/mentors, in which Morissette shows her unique way of cutting straight to the chase.

“Baba” tells of the time Morissette has spent since “Jagged Little Pill” examining Eastern philosophy. The song seems to be a jab at those who want the instant route to enlightenment: “How much does this cost guru/How much longer ’til you completely absolve me?” sings Morissette to a background of rude, ringing guitars, crashing drums and a faintly Eastern melody.

The centerpiece of the album is the instant mega-hit “Thank U,” in which Morissette shows her openness to all that she has experienced in her ride to stardom: She thanks India, terror, disillusionment, frailty and nothingness; silence gets a double thank you. The song is also a Post-It note to herself: “How about me enjoying the moment for once?” And the singer’s maturity in reflecting on success is deftly demonstrated in one great line: “How ’bout them transparent dangling carrots?” The same thoughts are reflected in “That I Would Be Good,” but from the opposite side, a meditative prayer that she would still be “good,” that is, a good person, even if she utterly failed as a singer, artist, sex symbol and lover.

No, thank you, Alanis. Nice album. Jewel, “Spirit,” produced by Patrick Leonard (Atlantic) Jewel, too, had a phenomenally successful debut a few years back with “Pieces of You,” selling millions of copies, probably mostly to women ages 12 to 21. And like Alanis, Jewel’s new album takes her to a new level. But where “Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie” makes Morissette a serious player in the intelligent music world, “Spirit” chops Jewel down a few notches, exposing Jewel as a thin songwriter and dubious lyricist, albeit still one with a nice voice.

On “Spirit,” Jewel tries to pick up the world’s heart – a noble aim, to be sure – but does so with overly simple methods. She actually revels in this approach in “What’s Simple Is True”: “The more I live, the more I know/What’s simple is true, I love you.”

Picture trying to comfort a victim of some tragedy by patting him on the back, and saying, “There, there. There, there.” That’s essentially what Jewel does on “Hands,” a song that might be memorable with better lyrics than “If I could tell the world just one thing/It would be that we’re all OK/And not to worry, ’cause worry is wasteful.” On “Fat Boy,” Jewel conjures up the obese, unpopular kid, and Jewel – yeah, the one on the cover of Vogue, People, Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly – assumes she’s doing a favor by telling him, “Oh, fragile flame/Sometimes I feel the same.”

The sentiments are all true enough. But we don’t look to our artists for these dirt simple truths, but deeper, more complex ones. Who couldn’t tell you not to worry, because worry is wasteful? The CD package is covered with more such bromides: “We are loved beyond our ability to comprehend.” And this gem, attributed to Plotinus: “We are not separate from spirit, we are in it.” Ani DiFranco, “Up Up Up Up Up Up,” produced by DiFranco (Righteous Babe) DiFranco is the mistress of quantity; “Up Up…” is her 10th full-length disc of new material in the ’90s, and she has also released an EP, a two-CD live set and various collaborations. Plus, she tours like a demon. And she has been no slouch, qualitywise; most of her CDs have been well worth releasing; 1994’s “Out of Range” is practically a masterpiece.

Even with all that output, “Up Up …” shows sides of DiFranco that haven’t been seen. Where DiFranco typically rages loudly, with furious guitar and voice, against a male-dominated, hypocritical world, “Up Up …” has her more quietly seething.

” ’tis of Thee” opens the disc and shows right away that things are a little different, at least in how she is going to deliver her message of dissatisfaction with the status quo. DiFranco practically whispers her way through the song, an indictment of American culture: “Why don’t you just go ahead and turn off the sun/’Cuz we’ll never live long enough to undo everything they’ve done to you.” “Virtue,” despite a bit of grinding Wurlitzer sound, is even more hushed; the self-putdown song drags to a halt. Amazingly, DiFranco gets even more down on the long dirgelike “Come Away From It,” on which she uses an almost blues-style wail.

“Jukebox” finally raises the tempo of things, but even this song has a stilted stop-and-go rhythm to it. It is hardly a momentum builder, but neither is anything else on this CD. “Angry Any More,” with a rolling banjo part, is about the smoothest thing on the disc.

“Up Up …” won’t appeal to everyone, of course. Even DiFranco’s most accessible CD isn’t for everyone. “Up Up …” may not even appeal to DiFranco diehards. But it that oddball, experimental disc that may just grow on me in time, in my own odder moments. Shemekia Copeland, “Turn the Heat Up,” produced by Bruce Iglauer, Jimmy Vivino and John Hahn (Alligator) On this debut album, Copeland announces her entrance into the ranks of blues mamas like Etta James and Koko Taylor. The trick with Copeland is that she is just 19 years old, the daughter of late Texas bluesman Johnny Clyde Copeland.

There’s nothing immature about the way Copeland sings here, or what she sings about. She attacks such songs as “I Always Get My Man,” “Has Anybody Seen My Man?” and “Big Lovin’ Woman” with a full-voiced gusto, the kind you expect from a woman who has had her day in the world.

Copeland makes her Aspen debut this Wednesday, Feb. 3, at the Double Diamond.


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