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.

On "Tell Me Why," Cale starts with a Moroccan polyrhythm, layers on some keyboards, slips in some deep gospel from the Lafayette Inspirational Ensemble and calls it pop. The CD's 12 tracks are peppered with cerebral sing-along slogans such as "so much for love, so long for now," "if we could work it out, we'd have done it by now" and "indistinct notion of cool." There's soft rock ("Entre Nous"), slinky slide-guitar road songs ("Dancing Undercover"), country-ish ballads ("Set Me Free"), perky string ensemble pieces ("Gatorville and Points East") and a whole bunch of stuff that sounds like the Talking Heads really trying to write pop songs circa True Stories. Echoes of Brian Eno, Brian Ferry and Laurie Anderson are all in evidence.

The Heads connection is especially strong, since David Byrne guests as guitarist and co-writer on the disc's best tune, "Crazy Egypt," a galloping slap-back drum beat with Cale approaching rant and Byrne steering his guitar through a rhythm based on the sound of skipping vinyl. Cale's more interested here in textures than in rocking, and he's probably a little too calculating for today's pop market, just like Adrian Belew's always been just a wee bit brainy for rock. But some people still like brainy, calculating pop. Right? (*** 1/2)

-- Brad Tyer

Shawn Colvin
A Few Small Repairs

She may look like Tinkerbell, but be forewarned: Shawn Colvin is one dark folk pixie. Whether waist deep in the soggy muck of life or just poking around for difficult truths, Colvin clearly excels under duress.

Lush, prickly and crafty as hell, A Few Small Repairs, a 12-song meditation on love undone, is also a welcome embrace of pop radio. Reunited here with John Leventhal, producer of her 1990 debut, Steady On, Colvin neatly closes the first part of her career and the end of her marriage with a single stitch. She pulls out her life-fixing tools in the very first verse of the leadoff "Sunny Came Home," and by the second track, she's already at the "Get Out of This House" stage, singing "You act like a baby, you talk like a fool/ Go back to your mama, go back to high school."

From there, Colvin artfully bobs and weaves in time with the various stages of grief, even embracing her inner fatalist on "Trouble" as she sings, "This world's a blessing and a beast everyday." When she finally hits bottom, gets out from behind her guitar and plugs into the heart of the matter on "If I Were Brave," Colvin is feeling the weight of being both court jester and her lover's foe, as she tries to sort things out on a plane to New Orleans.

The sterile groove and clashing styles of "Suicide Alley" make it the CD's one clinker, but even then she bounces right back, taking on hype and star-trip personas with "New Thing Now." It remains to be seen whether this year will be Colvin's, but with the triumph of A Few Small Repairs under her belt, you'd be a fool to bet against her. (*** 1/2)

-- Robin Myrick

CDs are rated on a one to five star scale.

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Robin Myrick
Hobart Rowland
Brad Tyer