Trish Murphy was a contender, likely still is. After all, she's got the goods: a vivid voice that runs from girlish glee to womanly growl, songwriting skills that on occasion hit the bull's-eye, a stunning and sexy yet girl-next-door presence. And after she made a play for the brass ring with Rubies on the Lawn, Girls Get In Free sounds like a return to safe ground.
This disc plays like the natural follow-up to Crooked Mile, Murphy's solo debut, and ergo feels like a retreat from her bid for the pop-rock big time with Rubies, her second album. And as with her first disc, there's also a frustrating shortfall factor. At her best, Murphy shows the makings of someone bound for at least a reasonable share of success, and when she misses the mark, the listener who also hears what she's capable of is unnerved and disappointed.
Girls largely eschews the pop-inflected rock of Rubies to revisit the country-folk-rock of Crooked Mile, although its best moments hint at something musically broader and beg for more of it. That said, her finest composition here is "Eternal Dream," a redemptive prayer set squarely in the folk form that stirs emotions with simple eloquence and expressiveness. Like all the other winners here -- such as "Paralyzed," which boasts the brilliant chorus line "Sit around at home and swallow butterflies" -- the material and melodies are complemented by guitarist Mac McNabb's Beatlesque guitar figures set squarely in the Harrison mold. He adds tempting and illuminating "Georgian" flashes to such alluring confessionals as "All I Want," "One for the Boys," "Love Never Dies (It Just Gives Up)," "St. Christopher" and "I Don't Want to Believe." But his work and her songs are too often draped in oh-so-tasty yet unimaginative Americana garb that fails to meet the challenges of the songs.
And then there are the numbers where the effort and stitching show. The good-girl-gone-bad tales of "The Trouble with Trouble" and "Thelma and Louise" feel forced, and her perky duet with Bob Schneider on Lyle Lovett's "Cowboy Man" plays like little more than a bid for the Texas Music Chart. But then Murphy bleeds a line like "All the King's horses, and your children's laughter, put it back together again," and one feels the presence of inspired art from a deep and rich heart. It didn't happen this time, but Murphy may someday find the sure footing and artistic speed to take the race.