The popular myth of a cohesive entity known collectively as "the female artist" is put to the test by these two new releases. Carina Round and Azita are both estrogen-packing singer-songwriters, and each has just released her second solo disc. As for common ground, that's about it.
Carina Round's new CD, The Disconnection, sounds big and expensive. Round gazes demurely from the slickly art-directed front cover and growls fiercely from the back. Her thank-you list unfortunately leaves her open to comparison with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the Velvet Underground, Tom Waits and novelist Jeanette Winterson. It's a list many fledgling artists might find inspiring, but one that few could take their place among. By the sonic evidence offered by her sophomore outing, Carina ain't there yet.
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One artist who can comfortably claim her place in the above pantheon is PJ Harvey, whose phantom seems to haunt Round's music. But where Harvey always sounds urgent, stabbing out from the speakers and demanding to be heard, Round, employing similar tonal effects on songs like "Into My Blood" and "Motel 74" (sample lyric: "you're just too close to a dream I had / I'm scared / but I don't know why"), merely comes off as strident, nagging to get attention. For better or worse, my gut response to The Disconnection was simply to hang up.
I'm happy to report that Azita's Life on the Fly is another case entirely, starting superficially with the look of the package and continuing inward. The painting on the front cover makes the most of a silly pun on the album's title, while the singer herself looks all business on the back in a three-piece suit. On the disc itself we find an eccentric pop-jazz hybrid that owes little to any specific forebears but can probably best be described as a post-punk answer to Blue-era Joni Mitchell, or perhaps a cockeyed midpoint between Steely Dan and the Fall.
On playful, toe-tapping numbers like "Just Joker Blues" and "Miss Tony," Azita and her band, featuring Tortoise's John McEntire on drums, give us jazzy rhythms bouncing against pointedly impressionistic lyrics ("move your head out that back pocket / into the thick of it") that somehow suggest 1968-era Paul McCartney at his goofiest. Oddly, at least in today's world of tortured-and-torturing modern rock, the bottom line on Life on the Fly seems to be enjoyment. And while I have a feeling Azita's arching, enunciated vocal lines will be an acquired taste for some, I'd argue that it's a taste worth acquiring.
So there we have it: two female artists who have virtually nothing in common in terms of sound, presentation, attitude or lyrics, proving that mere gender is no basis for comparison. Now if we could just stop lumping them together in music reviews, there might be some real progress.