Girls Interrupted

The success of Lilith Fair, now in its third and final year, reads well on paper. Big-voiced gals with guitars have gained thousands of new female fans who leave clutching free CD samplers, NOW stickers, and Biore strips. The largesse to LIFEbeat and local women's shelters radiates an especially benevolent vibe after Woodstock. Lilith brings women together almost long enough to force a massive cycle synchronization and moves with an equality-driven efficiency— no two bands played concurrently; the end of one set cued the next. But something troubling lurked beneath the you-go-girl positivism. Women's music may be more bankable, but only if it fits into the marketable mold that has been wildly reinforced, ironically, by Lilith Fair itself.

It seems that slinky, bass-driven soul searching (Me'Shell Ndegeocello) and insidious melodies of bittersweet introspection (Aimee Mann) don't sell records. When MN played "Grace," she quietly mentioned, "It's the first single from my new album, I hope." That is, if it can get past Maverick, which is apparently hoping for something instantly accessible. Mann, whose laconic delivery recalls Chrissie Hynde, is buying her album back from "the evil record company," which "didn't hear a single," and will release it independently. Not even 20-year veterans like Hynde can relax. Before the Pretenders launched into "Human," she said, "Our record company and lots of radio people are here, so act like you like it." What kind of celebration is this?

Little imagination was required to figure out where the performers fit in the pop music market. Mya, a poised teenage song-and-dance prodigy, showed the influence of Miss Jackson's Rhythm Nation. Sheryl Crow, in a muscle T-shirt and sporting a short, tousled haircut, plowed confidently through her hits, with the swagger of a male rocker. Though Sarah McLachlan's sparkly, seraphic presence evoked high-pitched screams, I keep waiting for her to evolve as Mann and Ndegeocello have, and buy a distortion pedal. McLachlan must have been the quiet girl on the playground who never got angry and never chased the boys. —Carrie Havranek


Safe Bilingual Home

The question spread like wildfire among the Roseland faithful last Wednesday night— will he sing first in Spanish or English? It was another one of those intimate New York Marc Anthony showcases where he invites select celebs, industry, press, and all 4 million of the area's Latinos to share the wealth of his magnificent tenor. But this night would be different because Anthony was to unveil six new songs from his upcoming English-language album. Amid scattered screams for "Salsa! Salsa!" he opened up with an electrifying rendition of last year's hit, "Contra la Corriente," leaping up to a bank of amplifiers, egging the crowd on. But then the stage went dark, and a huge screen rolled down to play the video for "I Need to Know," a slinky strut that does for bugaloo what bugaloo did for cha-cha.

The tune and the video's Day-Glo club images suggested a slower, more soulful Vida Loca than Ricky Martin's ska-inflected rapture. The lyrical content of the English songs seems streamlined and unexceptional compared to the tricky multisyllabic demands of a salsa torch song— in "That's Okay," he laments, "You were something/And now there's nothing." But the steamy grooves propelled by his backing band (notably Bobby Allende's killer timbale solos) and the current Latin-friendly music climate gives this English experiment can't-miss status. Anthony's well-rehearsed and intoxicating voice turned the reggae-lite confection "When I Dream at Night," and the midtempo ballad "You Sang to Me" (from the Runaway Bride soundtrack) into unexpectedly emotional experiences. It's because Anthony, a native barrio boy, thinks and feels in English, that he succeeds where other salseros have failed in the past. Ever the shrewd performer, he culminated the show with masterful, improvisation-filled versions of "No Me Conoces," "Hasta Ayer," and "Te Conozco Bien," letting everyone know he would never leave salsa, and his legion of loyal Boricuas, in the past. —Ed Morales


Brutal Youth

It would be all too easy to dismiss Joe Jackson as an '80s castoff, gone the way of the bi-level and the DeLorean. But Jackson was actually too far ahead of the curve. After he hit the charts with the sublime four-chord Sturm und Drang "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" as an angry young wunderkind 20 years ago, his eclecticism alienated as much as it anticipated. This was a guy who made Louis Jordan covers back when Big Bad Voodoo Daddy still wore knee pants, recorded the proudly homoerotic "Real Men" while Michael Stipe and many others loitered in the closet, raided calypso rhythms on Night and Day 15 years ahead of the Buena Vista Social Club. Rather than a has-been, the 43-year-old polymath now seems a pomo prophet.

So it was eerie to see the guy put on a makeshift nostalgia gig at the eponymous Joe's Pub last week, and even weirder to see the ex­new waver out himself as a Donna Summer fan. The two-night stand sold out in 24 hours, and the capacity crowd was treated to a trio set that included perfunctory hits ("Steppin' Out" now sounds made for the dentist chair), random covers (a Gen-X nod with Radiohead's "Karma Police," a cabaret-style take on Steely Dan's "Any Major Dude," a postglam run-through of Bowie's "Heroes"), and a sample of an unfortunate oratorio about six downtown losers (Rent meets The Threepenny Opera meets Tama Janowitz). But when he finally pulled out the 20-year-old Look Sharp! material, we remembered that we liked him better when he was a classical kid who could crank out pop, not the other way around.

During the metamusical "Slow Song," a hush fell over a drinking mass pushing 40. Eighties nostalgia may be a misnomer, but the pathos was real. No one could miss the era, but they all missed their youth. —David Yaffe

 
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