Suzanne Vega
Nine Objects of Desire
Sheryl Crow
Sheryl Crow

If the last year or so is any evidence, the '90s are shaping up to be rock's "she" decade. The flood of female potential shows no signs of subsiding, with gifted new artists such as Tracy Bonham, Jewel and Patti Rothberg making themselves known via sly refrains, hearty screams and coy coos. Given this profusion of new talent, you'd think it would be easy for the more experienced voices of Suzanne Vega and Sheryl Crow to get lost in the landslide.

In Vega's case, though, fending off younger competitors is the least of her problems. Lately, the real threat to her identity has been much closer to home -- in fact, it sleeps next to her at night. Her new Nine Objects of Desire, like her last release, 1992's 99.9Fi, is a family affair, with her husband, producer Mitchell Froom, figuring heavily into the proceedings -- a might too heavily, in fact.

To his credit, Froom succeeded in crafting a sumptuous working environment for Vega. A gentle, quirky rhythmic and stylistic playfulness pervades Nine Objects of Desire. The CD is an intricate time-keeper's paradise, helped along immensely by two of the best drummers in the business: the Attractions' Pete Thomas and studio ace Jerry Marotta. Throughout Desire, loungy bossa nova rhythms rub elbows with sensible rock beats, and swinging jazz signatures flow unimpeded into assertive hip-hop grooves. For added stimulus, Froom sprinkles in muted trumpet, moog bass, cello and flute to unlikely and exotic effect.

Unfortunately, such inventiveness can't supply melodic resonance, which is what much of Desire lacks. While Froom's toying about normally works to expand an artist's creative range, here it boxes Vega in; she has virtually no room to breathe. It's cruelly ironic that after the considerable effort made to dress Desire up, its most memorable songs, "No Cheap Thrill" and "World Before Columbus," are its most basic.

Desire's failure isn't all Froom's doing; Vega had a hand in its frigidity as well. What was supposed to be a collection of songs dealing with sensuality ends up giving off about as much sexual heat as a textbook description of intercourse. Let's face it: Vega singing about getting it on is about as arousing as a math teacher reciting algebra equations. Intelligent as she is, Vega doesn't have the stomach for true intimacy. She's much more effective keeping her distance, exposing truths about others rather than airing her own dirty secrets. On Desire, Vega sounds out of her element, and as a result, the music escapes her grasp, falling into the producer's fidgety hands. But given that the producer is also her mate, Vega really has no one to blame but herself. (**)

Sheryl Crow displayed a similar lack of control on her popular 1993 debut, Tuesday Night Music Club. Strong in many areas, the effort nevertheless smacked of uncertainty. By contrast, Sheryl Crow is a model of self-assurance, the product of a woman who's lived a lifetime of weirdness in three years and found on the road the confidence she was after. It's the organic, personable feel of her stage show that emerges on this sophomore effort, which Crow produced herself with help, coincidentally enough, from Tchad Blake, who recorded and mixed Nine Objects of Desire. Mitchell Froom also helped with a few of the arrangements. In this instance, however, there's never any doubt about who's pulling the strings. It's obviously Crow.

Sheryl Crow embraces a number of genres -- from blues to R&B to folk to rock -- but its most conspicuous guiding influence is Exile on Main Street-era Rolling Stones. The Jagger/Richards touch is most pronounced on the CD's gems "Sweet Rosalyn," "Hard to Make a Stand" (Crow's "Tumbling Dice") and "If It Makes You Happy," on which the singer absorbs a few rock-god cliches and casts them in an image that's as fiercely feminine as it is honest (too honest, apparently, for Wal-mart, which has refused to carry Sheryl Crow because of its lyrical references to menstrual cycles, recreational sex and other realities). From the CD's powerful beginning to its less remarkable finish, Crow carries herself -- and her versatile soul-mama/sex-kitten voice -- like an old pro, willing even the weakest tracks (the preachy missteps "Redemption Day" and "Love Is a Good Thing," the colorless romp "Superstar") into our good graces.

Sheryl Crow lives up to its hype. Take it home, listen to it and appreciate it before its excellence is milked for all it's worth. And remember, there was a time when the radio-ravaged Tuesday Night Music Club sounded this good -- well, almost this good. (****)

-- Hobart Rowland

John Cale
Walking on Locusts

If John Cale's musical career is a river -- different every time you step into it -- then that river's high-water mark was the Velvet Underground. But don't come to his latest CD looking for that. After trying everything from punk rock to compositional minimalism, Cale logs his first attempt at "pop" songs in more than a decade with Walking on Locusts. The task may be unfamiliar, but this attempt has all the earmarks that define Cale vaguely in the public imagination. It's smart, sometimes bold, carefully constructed, oddly paced and ever so slightly bloodless.

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