Remember back in the early-to-mid-'90s when it seemed like women were poised to conquer popular music? The Indigo Girls, Shawn Colvin, Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs, Ani Difranco, Michelle Shocked, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan -- for a while there, the Lilith Fair posse gave the grunge boys a solid run for their money, and we were all a little bit more in touch with our feelings as a result.
Of course, the whole Lilith Fair thing was always more about post-feminist political statement than it was about the actual music, which is why by the time it became an actual full-fledged concert tour it had already lapsed into self-parody and many of the smartest talents stayed the hell away from it. Among the Lilith avoiders was a perennially underrated talent named Jonatha Brooke, best known as one half of the Story, a folk-pop duo from Amherst, Massachusetts. After a reportedly unpleasant breakup with her partner, Jennifer Kimball, Brooke kept the Story name for herself and releasing a solo album, Plumb, as Jonatha Brooke & the Story. That album remains quite possibly one of my favorites of all time. Brooke and her producer-husband Allain Mallet took the delicate-yet-twisted pop melodies and dissonant harmonies of the Story and fleshed them out on Plumb with an edgier, harder-rocking sound and an altogether darker sensibility. It's one of those records that can still knock the wind out of you ten years later.
I mention Mallet because Brooke has proven throughout her career to be one of those artists who, for all her obvious native talent, is extremely dependent on her producers for the ultimate success or failure of her music. This is bad news for her latest release, Back in the Circus, because her latest producer, Ryan Freeland, is no Allain Mallet, and he's certainly no Bob Clearmountain, the hitmaker behind her last studio album, 2001's Steady Pull. Though that album was sometimes a little too glossy for its own good, it had a sonic heft that far too much of her latest lacks.
Parts of Back in the Circus sound like the indie debut of a promising but unseasoned talent, not the work of a veteran singer-songwriter as gifted as Brooke. Brooke and Freeland's arrangements are frequently too obvious, as on the title track, which they set to a hurdy-gurdy waltz, or the claustrophobic "Sleeping with the Light On", with its fragile, little-girl vocal and stuttering panning effects (though it does at least make great use of a looped toy piano). The credits support the impression that some of these tracks are essentially demos recorded by Brooke and then fleshed out ever so slightly by Freeland and a studio musician or two: "It Matters Now", for example, credits Brooke with "acoustic guitars, electric guitar, clavinet, wurly, piano, kitchen timer, casio, autoharp". You have to give the gal credit for being such a one-woman band, right down to launching her own label, Bad Dog Records, but you can't help but wonder if her songwriting isn't getting insufficient attention as a result.
Because, on some of Back in the Circus, it's not so much the production as the songwriting that falls short of Brooke's previous efforts. "No Net Below" is a pretty but unmemorable ballad with an awkward refrain ("All I can do is / Swing 'til it's all net below"); "Less Than Love Is Nothing", a collaboration with Eric Bazilian of Hooters and Joan Osborne fame, flashes a brisk, almost drum 'n' bass backbeat, but can't overcome a lackluster melody. Especially perplexing is the bombastic "Everything I Wanted", on which Brooke intones upbeat lyrics like "So this is how it feels to be happy, to find real true love" in somber tones against a plodding beat. "Everything's the same but my name / And I have everything I wanted", she belts out stridently on the chorus; is she sending up marriage, or celebrating it? It's impossible to tell, and the fact that she follows up this droner of a tune with an equally flat reading of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" is even more of a headscratcher. It's almost like Brooke has forgotten how to sound like she's smiling when she sings.
It's too bad, because at her best she's still more than capable of making a jaded old fan like me smile as much as I ever did to classic Brooke tracks like "Made of Gold" and "Nothing Sacred". "Better After All", another Bazilian collaboration, is vintage Brooke, a tightly compressed folk-pop nugget with catchy yet slightly off-kilter chords and bittersweet lyrics. "Sally" is another gem, less pretty than "Better After All" but no less memorable, with one of those trademark Jonatha Brooke choruses that soars in out of left field and takes the song in another direction entirely (fans of tunes like "Charming" and "Last Innocent Year" will know what I'm talking about). On songs like this, Brooke reveals that her true kinship, and source of brilliance, lies less with the Lilith Fair crowd than with other post-Beatle songsmiths like Neil Finn and Jon Brion. Like them, she has a killer instinct for setting boldly inventive melodies and chord progressions into pitch-perfect pop songs.
"God Only Knows" aside, she also reveals a surprising knack for well-chosen covers here -- something she's never tried before, so going two-for-three ain't bad. Purists will cringe at her bluesy, trip-hop inflected take on James Taylor's "Fire and Rain", but speaking as someone who was never a big fan of Taylor's overly sentimental original, I was blown away by her ability to convincingly reinvent a tune that's as close to cliche as any '70s folk anthem this side of "American Pie". Even better is her completely unexpected take on that old Alan Parsons Project chestnut, "Eye in the Sky", which she reclaims as a heart-wrenching folk ballad. And, yes, I really used the words "heart-wrenching" and "folk ballad" to describe an Alan Parsons cover.
Maybe such smart, well-executed covers are the silver lining to the cloud that seems to be darkening Jonatha Brooke's songwriting talents -- but I'd still rather go back to those blue sky days of Plumb, or even the slightly hazy Ten Cent Wings period. Too many of her songs on Back in the Circus, and the production surrounding them, fail to do her justice. Here's hoping she escapes the circus next time around and reconnects with her muse.