Sound Check

If this summer's Lilith Fair achieved anything, it was to ram home the realization that there's strength in numbers, even where women singer/songwriters are concerned. More to the point, it proved that even an all-female lineup as strikingly one-dimensional as Sarah McLachlan's New Agey, neo-hippie-chic brainchild could entertain with reasonable consistency from start to finish. And perhaps most important, it proved it could entertain without sexual prejudice. Trans-lation: The average male could make it through Lilith's estrogen gauntlet with little risk of coming out the other side with his hormonal alignment thrown out of whack.

Still, with reliable marquee talent such as McLachlan, the Indigo Girls, Jewel and Sheryl Crow hogging most of the attention, you could argue that Lilith was lacking in adventure. Sure, alt-country matriarch Emmylou Harris provided a nice dose of polite irreverence, Fiona Apple offered the occasional pedophilic jolly and Lisa Loeb proved that sensitivity, sex appeal and smarts don't have to mean a wardrobe and an ego the size of Jewel's -- or result in shallow songs. But when all is said and done, the only thing truly untamed about Lilith Fair was Paula Cole's armpit hair (though her somewhat racy Houston performance did run a close second).

Quibbling aside, the resounding success of McLachlan's first venture into package tours has certainly done its share to heighten awareness of women artists of the young, white and introspective variety. You could also argue that, for better or worse, Lilith raised the bar for upstart acts, setting a new standard by which they'll be judged. That certain "Sarahndipity factor," if you will, may prove crucial to the crop of preholiday releases from women artists and female-fronted bands, seeing as a high concentration of them offer no real threat to conventional ideas of femininity and good taste. In other words, they're Lilith worthy.

Among the overseas groups joining this fall's Lilith-worthy ilk are a pair of U.K. giants, the Sundays and Texas. After a five-year hiatus, Britain's Sundays make a predictable comeback with Static and Silence. Self-produced at the Sundays' home studio, the disc deviates little in sound from the shimmery, fey-folk approach of the group's previous two releases, the second of which (1992's Blind) was significantly less interesting than the first (1990's Reading, Writing and Arithmetic).

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Defined by the pliable songbird chirp of Harriet Wheeler -- whose low-key hubby, David Gavurin, provides the innocuous strumming that politely nudges her well-mannered emoting heavenward -- the Sundays sound doesn't aspire to much more than the most inconsequential sort of incandescence. "Summertime," "Cry" and "She" don't so much sweep you off your feet as they sweep you into a cozy cocoon of indifference. Indifference holds court throughout Static and Silence, as coyly evasive prose trails off into indefinable, love-struck nothingness. Think of it as the lyrical equivalent of new parents Wheeler and Gavurin making goo-goo eyes at each other while they fawn over their baby.

No one's knocking the couple's marital bliss, and to their credit the Sundays do manage to log the occasional mood swing ("Your Eyes" makes a fairly believable stab at melancholia). Still, the prevailing sense of well-being slops syrup onto the already sweet melodies, and threatens to drag the music into a spineless alt-pop zone just this side of Muzak. Static and Silence sports the sunny sheen of self-satisfaction, and nothing is blander than the sound of a group patting themselves on the back. (**)

By contrast, the fidgety Scots of Texas rarely seem comfortable in their own skin. Led by the hauntingly photogenic Sharleen Spiteri, the quintet came out of nowhere in the late 1980s, bucking trends as a highly stylized roots rock act with a whiff of Motown soul and a hip but practical fashion sense. (When in doubt, wear black.) Through all their growing pains over the years, the band hasn't had a problem finding a sympathetic ear at home -- and, in Spiteri's case, a sympathetic camera lens. Texas's slick, blues-inflected debut, Southbound, peaked at number three in the U.K. And after lukewarm responses for the subsequent Mother's Heaven (justified) and Rick's Road (unjustified), their latest CD, White on Blonde, recently shot to number one.

Collaring a meaningful U.S. audience, however, has been a chore for Texas -- which is somewhat ironic, given the band's obvious affinity for vintage Americana. Just look at their name, for chrissakes. Perhaps as a response to Yankee apathy, White on Blonde has Spiteri striving to reinvent herself as something more risque and of-the-moment -- a Highlands version of a new-jack soul diva, perhaps, or a pouty, pre-millennium torch singer. And while she may possess the runway-model stare and innate charisma needed to carry Texas in the image department, her singing -- though technically stunning -- lacks a true diva's distinction. Because of that, the least compelling tracks on White on Blonde are those that throw the spotlight on Spiteri at the expense of the rest of the band -- for example, the synthetic, program-happy "0.34," the vapid come-on "Put Your Arms Around Me" and the plastic soul clunker "Insane," with its nauseating strings and teasingly inconsequential trumpet.

But when longtime friends and collaborators Spiteri and Johnny McElhone buckle down and focus on the music, as opposed to whipping up the perfect star vehicle for you know who, the results more closely resemble the lucid songwriting that fans have come to expect out of Texas: the swirling, regret-tinged "Drawing Crazy Patterns" (a deserving hit in any country), the emphatic Motown send-up "Black Eyed Boy." Too bad those moments aren't more plentiful. Through much of White on Blonde, Texas's role is reduced to little more than that of a studio toy for Spiteri -- and, quite frankly, she sounds a little out of sorts playing the starlet all by her lonesome. (** 1/2)

Quite literally striking out on her own is Mississippi native Garrison Starr, who, with her old backup band, cut a fairly ineffectual figure on her last swing through Houston. Starr's gangly, semi-acoustic indie folk failed, for the most part, to strike a resounding chord with anyone in the audience. But man, what a full sonic makeover can do for a girl's reputation. In the hands of Camper Van Beethoven producer Dennis Herring (he of the massive low-end, fat guitars and incessant tinkering), a semi-realized batch of coffeehouse ditties has been nipped and tucked into a confident major-label debut to be reckoned with.

On Eighteen Over Me, the overt pop sensibilities lying largely dormant on Starr's two self-released efforts are shaken awake by an amplified dose of layered guitars. Suddenly, the modest strum-along hooks of "Grounded" and "Superhero" boast two of the weightier choruses in recent memory. With a little nudge from Herring's well-oiled backup band, Starr's low-key reflections on the psychodrama of growing into -- and beyond -- life's puzzling idiosyncrasies become urgent pleas for understanding, and modest personality-defining episodes are fashioned into potent war whoops for disenfranchised tomboys everywhere.

If the slower stuff on Eighteen Over Me isn't as immediately appealing ("Ugly" takes a page -- and a title -- from Juliana Hatfield's Hey Babe self-hate handbook), and if the girlish overreach of Starr's vocals grates in spots, give it a while. Eighteen Over Me's true beauty unfurls over time, much like that bright, unconventional, makeup-free cutie in high school who, seemingly out of nowhere, makes off with your heart. Heck, much like Starr herself. (*** 1/2)

Very much the unconventional cutie, Kim Fox makes a lunge for the jugular on her ambitious debut for Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks label. Moon Hut is an epically hummable tour de force of technical proficiency (she sings and plays piano), sinfully clever songwriting and teasing sexual and spiritual innuendo. With the delicate voice of a girl and the old soul of a grandmother, Fox shrouds her mixed messages in an almost puerile innocence. It's a delivery lacking neither in guile nor attitude. And while at times she may indeed come off as a bit precious, Fox is no shrinking violet. Her contemporary spunk factor is neatly summed up in lines such as "You can be rude and crass / Someday boy, they're gonna kick your ass."

While at Vassar College, a prestigious feminist enclave, Fox starred in various plays and musicals and studied voice and music theory. Taking into account that scholarly background, it's funny how little of Moon Hut sounds belabored -- it's a bit theatrical, maybe, but hardly ever academic. Fox's historically broad synthesis of pop styles strikes an impressive balance between the cerebral and the emotional, tapping everyone from Laura Nyro to George Gershwin to her father, the leader of the 1950s doo-wop ensemble Norman Fox and the Rob Roys. All of which makes Moon Hut one of the most satisfying debuts of the year. (****)

Accolades notwithstanding, it's hard to know whether Fox -- or any of the others mentioned above, for that matter -- will have any shot at next summer's Lilith Fair II. But maybe keeping out of McLachlan's sight isn't such a bad thing. Come summer, there's always the chance that the mother of all VH-1 she-ins might have spawned one or two small-scale, more interesting competitors. In the meantime, a special December concert in Florida will trot out the core of the 1998 Lilith lineup, and rumor has it that -- big surprise -- the roster is already top-heavy on returning acts. After all, in the end, even girl power has to give way to money.

-- Hobart Rowland

***** Righteous babe
**** Prom queen
*** Girl next door
** Plain Jane
* Woof

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