Suspicious Minds

In the recent Tiananmen Square documentary The Gate of Heavenly Peace, student leader Chai Ling repeatedly -- without embarrassment or, for that matter, any sense of modesty whatsoever -- refers to herself as the movement's "commander in chief." As the small, weary woman watches the revolt grow and then crumble around her, realizing that for her, failure could equal death, this one continuing act of arrogance is completely disarming. A friend was annoyed enough by these egoistic proclamations to call her "nutty." One small part of her offense is gendered -- petite, high-voiced girls don't usually grab hold of strapping titles like "commander in chief." But I think the biggest part of the shock is watching someone raised up on Communist selflessness dish out the individualism on which democracy paradoxically depends; she was in charge.

Singer Syd Straw is a little like that onstage. She stood before the audience at Slim's a few weeks back, half commander in chief, half belle of the ball. A certain drunk heckler was about the only person in the room who wasn't charmed into transfixion by her presence and her jokes. Straw handled him thusly: He was acknowledged, and then engaged, cajoled, repudiated, warned, humiliated, and, finally, kicked out with impeccable gumption. "Get the fuck out of my show, buddy!" she ordered, like a general, like a czar. Bouncers materialized.

Backed by the right-as-rain rockers the Skeletons, Straw performed selections from her resplendent new album, War and Peace. I don't usually throw around the word "adult" as a compliment (connoting as it does the no-fun drabness of maturity as performed by Michael Landon or Colin Powell). But listening to this record, you get the feeling Syd Straw's been around the block so many times that everyone knows her name. Regrets, disappointment, fatigue, and pain congeal into a picture of sorts, a picture of an ordinary life remembered with no-frills heart and footsore humor.

"I'll return someday when I have something to say," she promises in the soulful, spaced-out-at-a-dumb-job ballad "Million Miles," and that's exactly what she did. It's been almost seven years since her debut solo album, the promising but flawed Surprise. Finally, she's written songs that live up to her extraordinary voice. "You're that good singer!" she says Courtney Love called her when the two met once in Georgia. But Straw's vocals aren't the bad kind of good -- that techy, overblown, vibrating horror that made Whitney Houston famous. Nor does she stoop to the decorative whines of current cross-bearer Alanis Morissette, though she did perform an uproarious, a cappella parody of Morissette's insipid anthem "Ironic" that seemed to crack up Alanis friends and foes alike. Even if Straw will never match the popular Canuck's sales figures, she carries herself as if she already has. Still, she's wise to where she stands, singing surely in "Static": "I don't wanna be the voice of this or any generation," adding, "I know nobody's asking me."

The rock 'n' rolling "CBGB's" turns what could have been a strange or uncomfortable memory (a one-night stand she met at the famous New York bar 10 years ago) into a sweet and barreling act of friendship. A few pensive guitar strums get kicked in the pants by a drum roll, and as the band clicks into 4/4, a breathless Straw addresses the guy, wondering if he remembers her, admitting that she thinks of him from time to time, taking a big breath to confess, "I was married for a while/ It ended in tragedy." And that line is so plain but still so loaded it clears the air a little, makes you feel at home. When she wants to know if any of his dreams came true, it's not an indictment but a shared question: "I ask myself as I'm asking you."

Straw sings with a warm simplicity that can sometimes sound raw and elegant all at once, the kind of here-I-am approach that seems to make some people nervous: " 'Humanity' and 'honesty' are two of the most overrated things in rock," critic Simon Reynolds wrote last year. I cannot, will not, believe that, and with War and Peace in hand, I won't have to.

By Sarah Vowell
svowell@aol.com

 
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