So I finally saw "The Vagina Monologues," and thought it was pretty lame. It appears that in certain circles that opinion is tantamount to misogyny, so while I've never hidden my fondness for people with vaginas (vaginae?), now seemed like a good time to celebrate some under-appreciated women in music.
Linda Thompson's solo career (if you call one album released almost 20 years ago a solo career) has always been overshadowed by her work with former husband Richard, but with Fashionably Late (Rounder, to be released on July 30), she resurfaces in top form. Steeped in British folk music, the album features a surprise appearance by that other Thompson, who plays guitar and sings backup on the standout track "Dear Mary."
Stax Records was dominated by men, too — Booker T., Isaac Hayes, and the like — but they scored their first Top 10 record with the title track of Carla Thomas' Gee Whiz (Stax). The freshly reissued record sounds nothing like the tunes that made the label famous, but is a perfect example of the jukebox-friendly, strings-laden R&B that was popular in the late '50s. Especially nice is a take on the Drifters' hit "Dance With Me." Speaking of dancing (and at the risk of a too-backhanded compliment), the disco-jazz of Esther Phillips' What a Diff'rence a Day Makes (Legacy) is a campy delight ...
Helium's Mary Timony is still putting her band on hold, but her new solo effort The Golden Dove (Matador) should appeal to jonesing Helium addicts. Combining hints of songwriters as diverse as Liz Phair (on "Blood Tree") and Suzanne Vega (on "Magic Power" and "Look a Ghost in the Eye") with her own distinctive guitar playing, Timony laces her cryptic lyrics with obscure (and footnoted!) literary references. Luckily, the hooks are compelling enough to sustain it all.
Marlee MacLeod, a Southern gal with a master's degree in American Studies and a penchant for serial killers, seems inexplicably chained to micro-indie record labels, but at least the folks who put out Like Hollywood (Catamount) have some credentials, having blazed trails at both Bloodshot and Checkered Past. MacLeod has a fresh, truly unique (but not odd) country voice and writes smart, melodic songs that twang and rock but are not country rock. Her new record may not be quite as catchy as 1995's Favorite Ball and Chain, but it's still enough to make you wish the singer had swung through San Antonio after she played Austin last week.
Margo Timmins, owner of another distinctive Country voice, is exhaustively documented on the Cowboy Junkies' Open Road (Latent), a CD/DVD set that chronicles the group's 2001 tour. The package is a boon to fans, featuring not only a disc's worth of strong live recordings, but four video segments ranging from 30 minutes to almost an hour. One provides a straight interview with Timmins and her brother Michael and one is basically a tour scrapbook, while seven- or eight-song mini-concerts comprise the final two videos.
Speaking of concerts, Laurie Anderson had the mixed blessing of performing two New York City dates barely a week after the WTC attacks. Her Live at Town Hall, September 19-20, 2001 (Nonesuch) is inevitably colored by those events. Anderson is generally seen as ironic and detached; it's moving to hear the occasional quaver that creeps into her singing here — and incredibly chilling to hear the strangely prophetic "O Superman": "Here come the planes/They're American planes/Made in America." As with the Rolling Stones at Altamont, it will never be possible to divorce this performance from the events surrounding it.
Finally, the most exquisite Y-chromosome-free music lately is from relative newcomer Nina Nastasia. The Blackened Air (Touch and Go) is a chamber-folk kind of affair, complete with viola and musical saw; people keep mentioning how "urban" the songwriter's approach is, but that's kind of like calling Gillian Welch a cityslicker just because she wasn't bred in the Appalachians. Yeah, noisemeister Steve Albini recorded it, but that just means you can hear every nuance as Nastasia's voice swoops down from the smoke-filled sky with a metallic clank or two marking her descent. It's gorgeous, stark and slightly scary without ever quite getting into that Spoon River Anthology territory.
Somebody out there is yelling "Hey, man, what about the Breeders!?" Yes, former Pixie Kim Deal has resurrected her presumed-dead rawk band for a weirdo new disc called Title TK (Elektra). But Kim Deal's balls are just too big to fit on this particular list, and anyway I've got some other new Pixies-related stuff to tell you about later ...