Pity poor Toni Sicola. Someone must have screwed over the Houston native (and now Austin resident) something fierce, or at least that's the way it seems listening to In the Sun. The very first words uttered by its creator, aimed at a former lover in the track "Clever," are a blunt "You disgust me." The mostly acoustic effort is similarly direct -- it offers few frilly production techniques, and that works to the advantage of the artist and the material.
Her powerful, solid voice is the record's strong point on highlights such as the girlfriends-coming-of-age-chronicle "Fab Five" (based on her real-life posse), and the raw and unadorned "It's You." In the Sun's best track is "Gone, Gone, Gone." Written from her mother's point of view about her grandfather's death, it beautifully and succinctly sums up not only the intense emotions immediately felt at the loss of a loved one, but also the survivor's subsequent struggle to deal with it. "All I've got are these memories / And the camcorder tapes to play," Sicola wails, slicing to the heart of the matter in a powerful, heartbreaking way that probably drives many in her live audience to tears.
But Sicola's biggest weakness -- and thus the record's -- lies in her lyrics. Bland sentiments abound. There are too many longing looks, sun-filled moments and bitter post-breakup recriminations. Some lines sound like scrawlings on a sensitive tenth-grader's Trapper Keeper, such as this one from "Drowning in the Sun": "The lesson no one teaches / Is how to undo love." On the aforementioned "Clever" she whiffs on a great opportunity to get specific à la Alanis Morrisette's "You Oughta Know" and the breakup in question comes across as opaque and generic.
It's also curious that Sicola plays so little acoustic guitar on the record. Her work on "Gone, Gone, Gone" and the acoustic repeat of "Clever" show she's more than capable, but elsewhere producer Jack Saunders plucks all the strings. While Saunders's playing is impeccable and often jaunty, his needlessly overwhelming contributions detract somewhat from viewing Sicola as a complete artist.
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Toni Sicola's music can best be categorized along with her influences, which range from Joni Mitchell and the Indigo Girls to Ani DiFranco and Sarah McLachlan. But until she's able to work up stronger material -- and have a larger hand in its recorded performance -- she'll never approach that league of emotive singer- songwriters.