Although k.d. lang made it cool to be a lesbian, Melissa Etheridge made it marketable. Let's hope Catie Curtis helps make it irrelevant. The young folkster's major-label debut is full of smart, lively songs that manage to wax eloquent about emotional politics without making her sexuality an issue. For example, take "Radical," the strongest cut here and a joyous anthem that showcases Curtis's supple voice: "I'm not being radical when I kiss you/I don't love you to make a point/It's the whole of my heart that cries when I miss you/And keeps me alive when we're apart." Because of her understated approach and insight, you have the freedom to interpret the tune as you see fit. Interracial love? Gay relationship? In the end, what does it matter?
"You Can Always Be Gone" is a brisk rocker, fueled by slashing guitars that counterpoint Curtis's delicate alto. "Crocodile Tears" is a delicious dollop of blues that thumps to a Bo Diddley beat, while a juicy bass line propels the laconic wit of "The Wolf." "Slave to My Body" offers a mordant account of feminine vanity. Curtis works the turf between pop and folk like an old pro, and if her style lacks the vocal gymnastics of Rickie Lee Jones and the inventiveness of Michelle Shocked, comparisons to these fine artists are both inevitable and deserved.
It's hard to pick on the two young women of Cibo Matto, not only because their public personalities are so charming, but because they are genuinely talented. They're also being genuinely hyped right now, and Viva! La Woman -- the duo's debut album -- doesn't live up to the hoopla.
Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda are two Japanese Americans living in New York City who sing and rap, mostly about food, over sounds and beats generated by a sampler. Their music falls loosely into the category of trip-hop, the critically praised new dance trend in which leisurely paced funk grooves are blended with hip-hop percussion and electronic, vaguely techno soundscapes. Although the genre has produced some interesting artists -- Tricky and Laika, most notably -- trip-hop and its related subgenres such as jungle and British postrock too often act as little more than fashionable if innocuous background music.
Viva! La Woman is emblematic of the genre. Its cool atmospherics and club grooves never surprise or engage the listener, and the sound effects never create or sustain any kind of mood. Still, I take heart in the song "Birthday Cake." Supposedly, Cibo Matto's music evokes the worldly spirit of New York's Lower East Side, but only on "Birthday Cake" -- a screeching, horn-driven slice of global-village hip-hop -- does the pair define the cosmopolitan anarchy of the district, its energy transcending the limitations of the style in which it was produced.