“So young and beautiful”, sings Edie Brickell sweetly, a killer bass line played on guitar accenting the “if” in her voice. Building her way up to the chorus of her title track, “Volcano”, Brickell lets her subtly powerful vocals stand front and center, punctuated with light jazz chords. The ear awaits the impending eruption just as Edie knowingly teases with her first mention of lava. But no steamy pay-off ever arrives: just Brickell coolly singing “She’s a Volcano” to the vapid mood music of slightly descending chords ringing with reverb. The funky drumming that brings us into the second verse momentarily rekindles the song’s flame, which is all too quickly extinguished by the cold distance of a bridge orchestrated with mellotron and strings.
Edie Brickell has always been funky. “What I Am”, despite its obnoxious popularity and momentary omnipresence back in 1988, is an incredible groove highlighted with one of pop music’s better wah-wah solos. Being the first in a long line of second-generation hippie chicks, Brickell’s willingness to sing about sitting outside in just her bra earned her a place on the kooky side of rock stardom. Even marrying the far older [and now deservedly balding] Paul Simon, and crafting a gem of a doo-wop album with his help, was cool in an offbeat kind of way. And how about her “for hardcore fans only” release of late-nineties Long Island jam sessions with New Bohemians? Very funky, indeed.
Edie Brickell has incredible promise. So does her fourth [official] album, Volcano. Released after a nine-year hiatus from “professional” music, the album raised eyebrows with expectations from the moment rumors of its recording hit the street. After all, if in six years Edie helped create the New Bohemians’ classics Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars and Ghost of a Dog, along with her strong solo effort, Picture Perfect Morning, how incredible would the material have to be that took her nine years to craft?
The answer is Volcano, and the answer is “Volcano”. Like its title track that teases with moments of brilliance only to subsume them under layers of half-hearted notes and words, Edie Brickell’s new record fails to inspire, no matter how much you want it to. Case in point: on my first listen to the album, I actually found myself cheering Brickell on, verbalizing my hope “Come on Edie, you can do better than this” to an empty car. Unfortunately, Brickell has done much better than the rather spotty [and dare I say dormant?] Volcano, specifically on each track of every other album that carries her name above the title.
Granted, it’s nice just to hear her beautiful voice again. Sighing so softly over her strummed acoustic on the opening track, “Rush Around”, Edie’s voice entices you to believe that its sheer presence and subtle power suffice to overcome mediocre material. Sometimes it does. But not as a sustained effort. Mortally, Volcano suffers from three major maladies: poor production [sorry, Charlie!], lifeless music, and mostly unmotivated lyrics. This triple threat is too much even for a voice like Brickell’s to overcome; it actually seems at times that, with a half-hearted effort, Edie has put her great talent into fetters.
On Edie’s part, this is of her own doing. While much of the New Bohemians material was co-written with guitarist Kenny Withrow, “She”, “He Said”, “This Eye”, and the aforementioned “Oak Cliff Bra” are all gems of her own pen, as is all of the material on Picture Perfect Morning, although I suspect she had some uncredited marital aid on that one. On Volcano, Edie doesn’t live up to the high standards she has set for herself. The music is mostly boring, drifting around in an echoing ambience; a few jazz chords liven things up here and there, but not with any coherent direction. Even if you didn’t know that Edie has recently begun taking music lessons with hubbie Simon’s jazz guitar teacher, the music on Volcano would still sound like the work of a teenager who tries to cram every new thing they’ve learned into each song.
Flatter than her newly-learned diminished chords are Brickell’s lyrics, which have their magical moments, but tend toward the tedious. If “What I Am” proved that Edie wasn’t deep, it nonetheless showed the world how clever she was. That wit and insight are absent on most of Volcano‘s lyrics. “Sometimes a memory is hard to bear / Don’t know how a thing so old could still be there” is lightweight; “I had a fantasy / And you made it true for me” wouldn’t even fly on Broadway. Even Edie’s supposed surprises are cliché, as is the whole storyline for “The One Who Went Away”: “Out on the moor he met his lover / In the wet grass above her knees / And there he swore he loves no other / Then he came running home to me”.
Singing about distant romantic moors instead of “wild and free” America, Brickell just seems lost. The vast, nearly Lanois-esque landscapes producer Sexton provides her do not offer many points of mooring. Unlike the sonic swamp Sexton filled with masterful musical muddiness for Lucinda Williams’ Essence, the textures of Volcano fail to burn with any aura of magic. As the many individual snapshots of the session players on the album’s inner sleeve indicate, Volcano seems much less the effort of a coherent band than of session players who may never have occupied the studio contemporaneously. The feel is tight, but punchless; even the solos and fills bury themselves in anonymities of volume and interest. Great players—Sexton, Tony Garnier, Steve Gadd—play on Volcano, but there is little great playing.
Little great playing, little good music, little appealing to the mind, we are left with an album asking to be played on low volume, happy just to be background music in all the Starbucks of the world. What shall we do with all this useless beauty? We can pop Volcano in just to hear how an old friend is doing, and smile at the sound of her voice. We can listen to soporific sleepers like “Songs We Used to Sing” and imagine how great Edie would make them feel in concert. Or, we can just admit the sad truth that Volcano is just another soft rock record, destined for popularity amongst the sap-happy VH-1 crowd that gobbled up Sheryl Crow’s last lackluster release. And, on that meager account, Volcano could just be adult contemporary album of the year; hell, it beats Celine. And I, for one, wish Volcano all the luck it can find, as its success could induce Edie to return more fully to a career in music, which just might—with a little more work—give us all a new Edie Brickell album to which we want to listen.