Murphy's law... "Pinch the babies, make 'em cry and holler," barks Trish Murphy on "Concession Stand," a saucy number on her long-awaited debut CD, Crooked Mile. The tone is uncharacteristically brazen, but soak it up while you can, because it's the closest the former Houstonian comes to nasty on this near-flawless 11-song effort.

Sure, Murphy's got a brassy new image -- her perky bob replaced by a longer, more sophisticated hairstyle, her once modest stage wardrobe now dominated by tight-fitting retro attire that suggests a Sheryl Crow-inspired sexual independence. Apparently, the makeover is making an impression: When Murphy's latest publicity photo was passed around the office, our editor commented that her seductive new look might even make former Press writer Brad Tyer -- a die-hard Murphy hater -- "mewl like a puppy."

Murphy has also ended a lengthy association with brother Darin, who until a few months ago was playing drums in her band. Making that break, it seems, has put to rest for good the campus coed image she adopted as half of Trish and Darin.

Still, if the mostly even-tempered Crooked Mile is any evidence, nastiness will never be a comfortable part of Murphy's singer/ songwriter vocabulary. Her voice, sinewy yet vulnerable with just a splash of weariness, simply doesn't provide a convincing sounding board for blunt sentiment.

"It's the same situation that's existed throughout my career," says Murphy over the phone from Austin, her newly adopted home. "I've never fit into that angry female mold. It is so not me."

Then there's the matter of Murphy's happy-go-lucky indecisiveness, which, ironically, has become her most endearing trait. Crooked Mile is a triumph of uncertainty, pinballing between hubris and self-doubt, glossy pop hooks and stern folk mores. It lays down solid roots even as it stakes out new territory. Like most worthwhile debuts, it is more a model of what Murphy has become than a map of where she's headed.

As another testament to her transformation, Murphy has just about done away with evidence of her younger, more flippant self. She spares us the lighter teenage recollections on her new disc, choosing instead to bombard the listener with less settling images. Missed opportunities and the heartache that's often their result appear in various forms on Crooked Mile. There's the exhausted, slightly deranged breadwinner in "Boiling Water" storming home after his shift at the refinery, cocked and ready for a fight. Seen through a young girl's eyes, the vision of "daddy comin' 'cross the pasture, smokestack stuck in his back" is a picture of blue-collar rage so detailed you can almost taste the grit in the air.

Throughout Crooked Mile, Murphy invests her faith in little details, depending on the power of suggestion to carry her lyrics. "Blue Tattoo" chooses as its subject an etched-in-skin reminder of an affair "over before it's begun." On "Relentless," the depressing reality of a failing relationship is embraced so tightly "your fist turns white and your soul may be blown wide open"; the tune's sad resignation is embodied in the echoey chime of a lightly picked 12-string Rickenbacker. The disc's lone cover is a subdued rendition of Bob Dylan's "She Belongs to Me," its near-whisper of a lead vocal achieved by the singer lying flat on her back in the studio.

Crooked Mile -- the release of which Murphy will mark with two shows Saturday at McGonigel's Mucky Duck -- was produced with unassuming precision by Dave McNair, whose credits include Belinda Carlisle and the Silos. McNair's effortless pop sheen and the impressive cast of sidemen he employs serve to flesh out Murphy's sound rather than to sterilize it. Catchy and no-frills, her compositions are not the sort that lose their power in a more commercial translation, anyhow. All of which makes me wonder where Murphy's trends-be-damned approach would be most welcome. A little too eclectic for Nashville, a hint too twangy for Los Angeles or New York and not roots-minded enough for Austin, Crooked Mile could easily slide into the adult alternative niche that has yet to serve talented acts such as Iris Dement and Steve Earle as well as it should.

Still, given the right push, Murphy could win over a rock audience. At a time when the pissy young female appears to be losing her pull in the market, Murphy's cool contemplation might be just the ticket. Anger in long doses, after all, has a tendency to sound more than a little like whining.

Other release activity... Justice Records has assembled a memento of the Road Kings' '96 live stand at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge. Live at the Satellite Lounge! documents a record-setting June 8 at the club, when almost 600 fans stuffed the place to get a taste of the trio's increasingly rare rockabilly invasion. The CD -- which for now will only be available at the Kings' one-off Satellite gig Friday -- was recorded live to two-track with zero enhancement, so it benefits from being turned up loud.

Etc.... It appears the best publicized on-air casualty of KQUE's leap from FM to AM also may be its greatest loss. Houston radio icon Paul Berlin has left the station four months shy of his contract's expiration, obviously peeved about having his program shifted to a weaker signal. The disagreement went public on March 19, when SFX Broadcasting moved KQUE's programming from 102.9 FM to 1230 AM and changed the FM format to adult contemporary rock. Berlin, whose 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. show was a staple of KQUE, is currently in negotiations with another station, and while he won't say which one, he expects to be back on the radio in Houston soon.

-- Hobart Rowland

(Got a comment, tip or rip on the city's music scene? Let me know. E-mail it to Static at [email protected].)

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Hobart Rowland