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by David Browne
Music&Sound Output
July 1988
Original article: PDF

Michelle Shocked, a Texan with a spikey ‘do and an ain’t-I-quirky smile and cock of the head, isn’t so much the new Mitchell as she is the new Phranc. That’s not to say Shocked is a lesbian, but her music has the same quaint, dated feel. On The Texas Campfire Tapes, recorded live two years ago and available as an indie until PolyGram picked it up, Shocked has the wandering-ragamuffin schtick down pat: she sings of hard travelin’ in a folkie twang that could be Cambridge as much as Houston, and the chirping crickets in the background are too cute for words. Shocked’s early-Dylan stance, coffeehouse chords and talking-blues style are, well, time-honored, to put it politely, but the ingenuousness of it makes the result tolerable at best, cloying at worst. With any luck, Chapman, Shocked and others will eventually learn one of the cardinal rules of singer-songwriterdom: it helps to be at least a little demented. Just look at those who’ve survived. Croaky-voiced oddballs like Leonard Cohen and Michael Hurley are still fitfully productive, while sensitive angst-meisters like Laura Nyro and Carole King faded just as bell bottoms went out of style. (Judging from her yawn-a-second Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm, Joni Mitchell seems to be straddling the line.) In Cohen’s case, there’s some divine justice here: everyone harped on his non-voice and bought Judy Collins’ “Suzanne” instead, but I’m Your Man, his first record in four years, demonstrates he still has something to say—that is, for a guy in his fifties who could barely sing when he was 20. Having discovered the synthesizer, he proves here that he not only has his wit about him (“Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful, give or take a night or two,” “I was born like this, I had no choice/I was born with the gift of a golden voice”) but that he can still write strong melodies. When he merges his sense of song with his sense of doom (and Jennifer Warnes’ straight-faced harmonies), the results are terrific: “Tower of Song” may be the wriest song about death since Richard Thompson’s “Wall of Death.”

Added to Library on February 14, 2023. (344)

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