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With the Avril backlash in full swing, Alanis relegated to “influence” status, and Courtney Love off living it up at Camden Town hot spots, the music biz badly needs a real-deal female rock star, a sexy-smart iconoclast who can navigate the FM dial with equal parts reckless abandon and commercial savvy. Sheryl Crow is way too mainstream for the job, obviously, and for my money, Pink won’t be a possibility until she stops recording Linda Perry copyrights. As always, Liz Phair remains a dark-horse contender, but everyone’s favorite indie-rock pottymouth is problematic, too, given that (a) she releases an album only once every umpteen years, and (b) for her next one, she has apparently sold her soul to song doctors the Matrixa move that couldn’t possibly net her more than a warmed-over insta-hit or two. I mean, hasn’t she ever heard “Sk8er Boi”?
So here’s an urgent personal to the suits at major labels everywhere: Get a clue. Unless you really intend to stick us with a prefab retread like Hilary Duff, somebody had better think of something quick. At the rate Duff is currently diversifying her revenue streams, she’ll be signing all your paychecks a year from now if your A&R departments don’t start earning their keep.
Of course, you probably won’t sign Megan Reilly. As things stand, the Memphis-born, New York-based singer-songwriter-guitarist ain’t exactly a threat to the likes of young Hilary. For starters, she’s signed to a microscopically small indie imprint, a label that, to judge from the cotton-balled sound quality of Reilly’s full-length debut, Arc of Tessa, coughed up a studio budget that approximates the cost of a pack of Dentyne. More significantly, not every one of the album’s 11 tunes is a keeper. A couple are even outright duds.
But the best of the bunch hark back to the halcyon early ’90s, a period when independent women everywhere seemed to be staging an international pop overthrow. Despite a few glorious successes, howeverthe Breeders got through momentarily and a benegligeed Phair landed on the cover of the Rolling Stonerock’s velvet revolution was mostly quashed. And to the victors went the Spice Girls and Britney Spears and Mandy Moore and…Well, you get the point.
If Reilly has anything to say about it, though, the revolution is about to be reprised: Arc of Tessa is a moody little gem of a record that taps effortlessly into the same sublime melancholy that fueled vintage Throwing Musesor, to pick a more contemporary point of reference, the most haunting tunes by Cat Power chanteuse Chan Marshall.
But unlike Marshall, Reilly doesn’t seem to equate rockin’ out with artistic compromise, so she’s hired a crack band to propel her music. Veteran drummer Steve Goulding (of the Mekons and Graham Parker fame) and bassist Tony Maimone (a Pere Ubu alumnus) are the amazing rhythm aces here, and under their guidance, Reilly and multi-instrumentalist Tim Foljahn (who has also done time with Cat Power) proceed to get seriously loose-limbed.
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The pair slur riffs like musical drinking buddies on the Stonesian blues-rocker “Annie B.” and, especially, on “Girl,” the disc’s spacious, hypnotic opener. Reilly’s casual electric strum vies with Foljahn’s woozy slide work on the set-closing title track, and on “Two Chairs,” the album’s finest 3:47, the band channels the Muses’ pop melodrama to show-stopping effect. True, the track makes Reilly’s vocal debt to Kristin Hersh abundantly clear, but the singer’s Memphis roots still show: Instead of the Muses’ nervous New Wave edge, we get Reilly’s rock-gospel flourishes and plenty of Southern-fried attitude. “I know you don’t like country,” she allows just before the track’s spine-tingler of a chorus. “But I’m still gonna sing it.”
Arc of Tessa is a mighty fine debut, but it would be finer still minus a couple of folk-pop wheel-spinners. Studiously artsy though it is, the half-worked-out “He Is” ends up landing somewhere between Edie Brickell hell and Lisa Loeb purgatory. And the autopiloted “Tinytown” wouldn’t even make a decent Mary Lou Lord outtake. Here and there, atmospheric problems mar the proceedings, too, with producer/keyboardist Eric Morrison occasionally presenting Reilly as a neo-folk lightweight rather than as the sophisticated rocker she’s so clearly meant to be.
Still, even on relatively tepid tracks such as the too-languid “Horse (For Corrie Beth)” and the wistful “With You,” Reilly seems to be just a tequila shot away from greatness. Admittedly, it’ll be a while before she’s ready to rumble with Miss Duff for airtime on TRL. But Arc of Tessa makes it easy to know which woman to pull for.
Rooting in that particular brawl for the Children’s Hour, however, would be a seriously lost cause. The ethereal Chicago duo’s favored instruments include harp, harmonium, and ukulele, and guitarist Andy Bar even admits that he has the musical tastes of an old lady. Fey to a fault, these folks make the Smiths seem like Metallica.
In theory, then, none of the 13 songs on the band’s first album, SOS JFK, should work as indie-rock product. The disc opens with “Little Boy,” a softly fingerpicked lullaby that sets the LP’s gentle tone. “Wyoming” is a slow-motion rag about wide-open spaces, “Kindness of Strangers” a moony paean to fairy-tale innocence, and “Adoption Day” a wide-eyed thank-you note to a new set of parents. Throughout the album, the Children’s Hour rarely plays at levels that would disrupt even the lightest sleeper’s afternoon nap.
None of that, however, prevented major guitar-rock domo Billy Corgan from taking the group out on the road earlier this year with his new outfit, Zwan. And unlikely pairing though it was, it’s easy to hear why Corgan signed the Hour up. The band’s not-so-secret weapon is vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Josephine Foster, who has a big, sad warble of a voice andno less importantuke skills to die for.
Foster trained for a while as an opera singer, and her outsized vocals make the otherwise low-wattage SOS JFK a genuine powerhouse. On “Anna,” Foster scales octaves gracefully, never once getting obnoxiously screechy or losing the tune’s wispy melody. “Mary” finds her draping sumptuous vocal lines over chiming guitar chords like a Cocteau Twin. And on “Lost Love,” the singer shows that she can rock out a little, too, coming on like Belle and Sebastian’s kid sistermelancholy but flirtatious, particularly when she offers to hold your hand.
The album’s best tune, though, is its jangling set-closer, “Going Home.” Amid a swirl of twangy guitars and Tim Daisy’s minimalist percussion, Foster coos a passel of seductive promises, including the timeless “If you wait for me my darling/I will wait for you.” That’s an old romantic chestnut, of coursea promise that’s broken about as often as it’s made. On the strength of the totally charming SOS JFK, though, I’m willing to take my chances. CP