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Syd Straw
War and Peace,  Capricorn Records CD 42052-2a

Promising pop

From the opening power chords and the lyric "I’m not the toughest girl in the world," you realize that Syd Straw’s out to prove something on her second disc. And for the most part she delivers, with a sound that is alternately soft and tough, laden with irresistible hooks. You may have already heard "Howl" from the soundtrack to  Sleep With Me, but the album is much stronger than that tune.

Make no mistake about it, we’re talking pop candy here, nothing more but certainly nothing less. The wise consumer grows suspicious when a candy is touted as "indescribably delicious," and the same caveats hold for Straw. The album is a heavily produced, structured piece of work, but it delivers almost everything promised. Syd Straw forsakes the all-star cast featured on debut  Surprise, this time around relying on the Skeletons, a "legendary" Missouri bar band. At their best, they lay down a compelling groove midway between power pop and so-called alternative, never extravagant and right on target.

Straw herself has been kicking around for quite a while. She’s a former member of the Golden Palominos, whose alumni also include Michael Stipe, Matthew Sweet and Johnny Lydon. And she had a leading role in the PBS production of Armistead Maupin’s  Tales of the City, as well as the Nickelodeon series  The Adventures of Pete & Pete. Her early days are reflected in the album’s strongest cut, "CBGB’s." Somewhat reminiscent of early Blondie, I was playing this one back in my head all day after the first listening. The second time, it stuck for a week. It’s a good-natured tale about meeting a friend from times gone by and discovering how lives diverge, always remembering those glory days back in CBGB’s.

As the slightly twangy "Toughest Girl" lays out the territory, Straw admits to "staining my shirt front just like some old drunk" in a rhyme that sounds funnier than it reads. "Love, and the Lack of It" nearly has the bitterness of Marianne Faithful–particularly when the line about a woman "Explaining her scars to another stupid man" is emphasized by a biting, distorted guitar attack out of nowhere. "Million Miles" is little piece of pure pop pleasure, with Straw’s throaty voice propelling the quietly driving tune from hook to hook. Throughout, Straw is often double-tracked in harmony, a gimmick I admit I’m a sucker for.

The opening cuts are so good, it’s disappointing when the disk gets away from her with a glut of slower, simpler, and less interesting songs towards the end. While there’s nothing really wrong with these cuts, they just don’t measure up to the high craft of the first half, in ways that remind me of several other albums I really enjoy. On both the Pretenders’ and the Steve Forbert’s debut LPs, all the noteworthy songs were crammed onto the first side–here they’re all on the first half. This technique works great on an LP, where you never have to play the second side. Surprisingly, it also works on CD, as I’m far more often to hear the first 6 songs on any CD than the last 6. And the successful songs share the weaknesses of Oasis’  What’s the Story, Morning Glory, a thoroughly enjoyable piece of work that somehow still falls just short of its promise.

Still, there’s an awful lot that’s right about this disk, especially when compared with the rather dismal level of so many recent releases. And unlike many artists, I’m looking forward to her next work, which I expect will take her higher, when a taste of commercial success will focus here considerable energies on her recording career. For now, I’ll sit back and enjoy the fun.–  Bill Kuhn

Copyright © 1997 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.