Ever since she emerged in the early '90s, Jill Sobule has symbolized all that is abhorrent about modern girl-pop. Like far too many female folkies, Sobule apparently believes that songs about feminine quirks are empowering. Her irksome approach reached its nadir on the 1995 single, "I Kissed a Girl." An anecdotal ditty about a brief homoerotic encounter, "I Kissed a Girl" cautiously alluded to lesbianism but never pledged allegiance to it. As a result the song (her only big hit so far) inspired more questions than answers. Was the tune intended to be Sobule's "coming out," or was the awkward moment described in the song simply a curious childhood experiment? "I Kissed a Girl" was too mealy-mouthed to be effective, and Sobule's lack of conviction made the song seem like a desperate ploy for attention. Inquiring listeners had to wonder what other shocking confessions Sobule would reveal -- "I Humped a Hottentot"? "I Fondled a Hermaphrodite"?
Although I'll still take old-school rockers like Joni Mitchell or even Heart's Ann Wilson over the sorry new crop of pop divas, Sobule is showing signs of improvement. She hasn't changed her tactics -- she's still warbling about men, anorexia, and other Oprah-approved topics. What makes the singer's new album intriguing is its artful experimentation. Featuring 12 diverse songs, Pink Pearl may be Sobule's magnum opus. Props to co-producers Brad Jones and Robin Eaton for framing Sobule's estrogen-scented lyrics in a variety of interesting musical settings. From bossa nova and hip-hop rhythms to '60s-style grandiosity, Pink Pearl runs the stylistic gamut while rarely stooping to Lilith-era indignation.
Sobule rises to the occasion with her best songs and performances yet. Her vocals are sweet yet urgent, while her guitar, drum, and keyboard contributions are surprisingly good. And unlike Sobule's earlier, bouncier recordings, Pink Pearlbrims with bittersweet tunes packed with philosophical insight. "Lucy at the Gym" is the tale of a weight-obsessed woman who exercises herself into oblivion while "Claire" comes on like a contemporary version of "Eleanor Rigby." Most impressive is the album's energetic opening track, "Rainy Day Parade." This strangely inspiring ode to depression finds Sobule recreating the big-city bustle of Petula Clark's 1965 hit, "Downtown." The song's booming kettledrums and pealing church bells seem to herald the awakening of Sobule's dormant muse.
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