The Ladies' 1991 album Gordon was one of the most auspicious debuts in recent rock history. Every one of its thirteen songs packed a hypnotic hook, quirky lyrics, and an instrumental exuberance that bordered on manic. The Canadian quintet shifted effortlessly from zany novelty pop ("Be My Yoko Ono") to gut-wrenching torch songs ("Wrap Your Arms Around Me"). They harmonized like angels, played like devils, and paid campy tribute even to their most regrettable musical influences, managing to make even Styx sound good.

Gordon shot to number one up north but was followed three years later with the tepid Maybe I Should Drive. Pirate Ship, the Ladies' new one, marks a tentative return to form. It's a steady pop album, a finger-snapper, but rarely more. "Straw Hat and Old Dirty Hank" is a smart-assed paean to country that finds bassist Jim Creegan sawing gamely on a fiddle. The energetic "I Know" might be one of the only songs ever to combine the trilling of a piccolo with a cowbell. "Spider in My Room" is a jazzy thumper that features chanted vocals by fellow Canadians the Stoney Park Pow-Wow Singers. Steven Page's supple tenor voice remains in fine form, capable of enlivening otherwise ho-hum ballads such as "Break Your Heart" and "Same Thing."

Despite some instrumental variety A a dobro and strings surface elsewhere A the band's sound has been pared down. Much of this is due to the departure of keyboardist Andy Creegan. His versatile tinkling provided much of the juice on Gordon, and the inventive arrangements on that album have given way to a duller, guitar-driven sound. The net loss is considerable. Pirate shows occasional signs of life, but nothing one might call genius.

By Steven Almond

Linda Smith
Nothing Else Matters
(Feel Good All Over)

Since the late Eighties, Baltimore-based Linda Smith has recorded and released a handful of likable home-studio cassettes of hooky folk-pop -- oblique songs of sighing resignation, uncertainty, and yearning that deftly jump from spare acoustic settings to jittery electric ones and back again. She taps into that same vein on her first CD Nothing Else Matters, seguing effortlessly from the chiming melancholy of "I'll Never See You Again" to the slow, dolorous "In No Uncertain Terms" to the rocking little instrumental "For Here or to Go" to the swirling pop-Middle Easternisms of "All of the Blue" (think Revolver-era Beatles) to the ominous, almost Eno-esque "Bright Side," whose lyrics drip with irony. She plays virtually everything here: strummy acoustic guitars, chattering electric ones, seesawing keyboards, straightforward percussion, and a kicky toy piano on "Little to Be Won." And as her own producer, Smith wisely leaves a lot of space between her instrumentation and her breathy talk-sung vocals, resulting in an uncluttered airiness that abets the effectiveness of her often wistful musings. (Feel Good All Over, P.O. Box 148428, Chicago, IL 60614)

By Michael Yockel

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