Women's Work is Never Done

Dionne Warwick
Dionne Sings Dionne
River North

After rising to diva status in the '60s and serving as creative muse for songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David until the mid-'70s, Dionne Warwick got waylaid in the '80s. That scary Psychic Friends debacle did little to burnish her reputation as one of the better singers of the modern pop era, and releasing little new material during that decade didn't help either. With her new release, however, Warwick has shed those informercial chains and returned in her latest incarnation: passionate den mother to the young music world.

Dionne Sings Dionne puts together talents as disparate as El Debarge and the Pete Escovedo Orchestra, while the big-hype single, a reworking of the Bacharach-David classic "What the World Needs Now Is Love" brings in, well, everyone: Big Daddy Kane, Flesh 'n' Bone, Kurupt, Coolio. If you've bought a hip-hop record in the last few years, this track is target-marketed right at you.

The rest of the record, luckily, isn't quite as much of a naked grab at the mass market. Instrumentation on some of the classic tracks, such as "Walk on By," has been updated (always an ominous term), but fortunately Warwick's mastery of her mature voice is so compelling that the bad drum machine doesn't matter. Warwick isn't a young singer anymore, and she knows it. Her voice is fuller, a bit deeper, with a hint of raspiness. It's a treat to skip through the songs that Warwick hung her hat on in the early years--"I Say a Little Prayer for You," "Always Something There to Remind Me"--and hear how she carves out new territory. On "Do You Know the Way to San Jose," she brings in Celia Cruz and the Pete Escovedo Orchestra and makes it the song it always yearned to be--big, Latin, and joyous.

Even with missteps like the love theme from "The Bold and the Beautiful" (who knew that TV shows had love themes?), Warwick has created a record that is a testament to growing old gracefully. She's not yet ready to shed that diva label.

Taylor Dayne
Naked Without You
River North

Like her labelmate, Dionne Warwick, Taylor Dayne is entering her second career, diva-wise. She hit the ground running in the late '80s, releasing a debut record (Tell it to My Heart) that spawned four hit singles and oodles of dance remixes. Soon, she was a throw-your-hands-in-the-air dance-floor darling. A follow-up record was also huge, but subsequent releases in the '90s never took off.

The years have treated Taylor well, however, and she's returned with a new record that not only shows off her vocal skills but also comes chock full of cheesecake photos of the luscious Ms. Dayne in various subtle states of undress--hence the title. Naked Without You is the standard diva package. There's up-tempo songs like "Unstoppable" and "Whatever You Want" alongside obligatory heartfelt ballads. The usual strings-and-synthesizers weigh heavily on these tracks, but Dayne's got a big voice that carries her through the more maudlin moments.

There is one unfortunate cover of "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me," originally popularized by über-diva Dusty Springfield. Oddly enough, Dayne's version doesn't fail because Springfield's voice was so much better--rather it's quite the opposite. Dayne's voice is almost too strong for the warbling vulnerability of the song. Where Springfield's voice dipped and cracked, Dayne's soldiers along. On a song that pleads vulnerability, the outsize confidence of her voice overwhelms.

On the whole, the disc, which includes a dance-floor remix of "Whatever You Want" that can easily hold its own on a steamy club night, is a relatively decent offering--though folks looking for the big disco experience would do better to pick up remixes separately.

Patricia Barber
Modern Cool
Premonition Records

Sometimes divas sport a subtler style. Earlier this year, with deserved fanfare--including rave reviews from the Los Angeles Times, Downbeat magazine, and the Chicago Tribune--lesbian vocalist Patricia Barber released one of the best jazz records of the decade. Modern Cool spotlights her delicious voice and top-notch arrangements, making it the kind of jazz record you'd buy even if you don't like jazz.

Barber makes no secret of her affections, and her quirky sensuality comes through on the disc's cover tunes. A reworking of "Light My Fire" turns the Doors' carnivalesque classic into a sexy plea as Barber lingers over each chance to say the word "girl." Paul Anka's "She's a Lady" gets the same languid treatment, sung at almost half the speed of the quintessential Tom Jones version. When Barber tells you that her lady is "the kind I'd like to flaunt and take to dinner," you're left a little breathless.

Barber's no slouch on her own songs either. She tackles modern makeup ("A Touch of Trash") and e.e. cummings ("Love, put on your faces"). She has a cool, literate style, and the sparse arrangements highlight her vocal talents nicely.

A show earlier this year at the Dakota Bar and Grill went underpublicized, but rumor has it she may be back in town soon. It'd be a shame to miss her sly, sexy style when she passes through.

PJ Harvey
Is This Desire?

Perhaps the most desirous, darkly transgressive woman working in rock today, Polly Jean Harvey makes close-to-the-bone records in which ambivalent lust slams up against outright fear and naked need. With the new record, Is This Desire?, she careens from whisper to wail and back again.

Everything about this record is too much--a trademark of Harvey's since the beginning, when her first single "Sheela-na-gig" was titled after Celtic fertility figures with outsized genitalia. Her voice is almost always unbearably loud, close to a scream. When it isn't, it's dangerously, insidiously quiet--a barely controlled silence. On "Electric Light," Harvey whispers, "The beauty of her under electric light / tears my heart out every time." Into that couplet, barely audible, she packs so much longing and loss that you can't imagine it any louder. On tracks like "The Sky Lit Up," her voice reaches a fever pitch, wrapping around producer Flood's trademark overkill style.

Another hallmark of Harvey has always been a decided ambiguity in her lyrics about women. Who cares? You end up not worrying about who she sleeps with, as long as she keeps singing about it. When she gender-fucks with your head on "No Girl So Sweet," singing as a man to a woman and a woman to a man, you want to swoon.

There are few artists that craft records as carefully as PJ Harvey, and each disc strengthens her status as one of the seminal artists working today. Yes, she's dark and weary and difficult to listen to, but every note rings true.

Melissa Ferrick
Everything I Need

If PJ Harvey is all about a bleak sort of truth, Melissa Ferrick seems to be a world of sincerity. She radiates earnestness, and she's a sister to boot. The problem is, her newest disc lacks any sense of fun.

Everything I Need marks Ferrick's second album on the W.A.R. label after two earlier releases for WEA/Atlantic. She garnered quite a bit of praise for her 1997 debut on W.A.R., a live record called Melissa Ferrick + 1.

Ferrick's career was launched when she got an 11th-hour invite to open for Morrissey in 1991. Her gig was so impressive that Ferrick garnered the opening spot for the rest of the U.S. tour.

On this record, however, things fall flat. Ferrick's voice is fine, with a soft twangy edge on the slower material. Her arrangements are nice and nondescript, with such little touches as a fluegelhorn creeping in at appropriate moments. All these things work together well, but there's no fire. Someone needs to beg Ferrick to stop writing relationship songs. (Have some fun with that talent!) If you want a sincere, hard-rockin' record from a woman, you probably already own a Melissa Etheridge record. Or an Indigo Girls disc. Or Ani DiFranco.

Everything I Need is a hard-working record that needs to let its hair down and loosen up a bit. On the Spirit of '73 compilation a few years back, Ferrick did a cover of "Feel Like Makin' Love" that was awful fun to listen to, particularly in a driving-around-in-your-car-in-the-sunshine sort of way. More of that and less earnestness would make this disc much better.

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