It takes a certain kind of cockiness to build a debut single around the statement "What I am is what I am," as fast-rising freshman pop singer Edie Brickell has done.
The previous personalities who made that basic existential remark the cornerstones of their careers, after all, were figures no less grandiose and enduring than the God of Moses (Exodus 3:14) and, of course, Popeye the Sailor Man.
Delusions of grandeur on Brickell's part? A bit too much spinach, perhaps?
Leading her expert band, the New Bohemians, through a wide-ranging set Monday at the Roxy (the first of three sold-out nights at the club), 22-year-old Brickell indeed came off as a self-assured young woman--but charmingly, not condescendingly, so. A native Texan who only began her first tour outside that state last month, Brickell seems at once both slyly insinuating and shyly guileless.
If that description seems paradoxical, Brickell owns up to as much in the witty "What I Am." (A hit song on alternative and album rock radio formats, "What I Am" has helped Brickell & the Bohemians' debut album, "Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars," approach gold-selling status, and is just now beginning to cross over to Top 40.)
In that single, Brickell juxtaposes questionably profound observations on the elusiveness of absolute truth with the repeated admonition, "Choke me in the shallow water before I get too deep." That's a disarming invitation. And, indeed, faced with the accusation that there are any number of lyrics on her first album that seem a tad precious, Brickell seems like the kind of unpresumptuous writer who would 'fess up to the criticism--and laugh it off.
Rather than Popeye, Rickie Lee Jones and Suzanne Vega are the more feminine pop figures with whom Brickell is most frequently compared. Though she's not yet as strong an artist as Jones or Vega, she does have a strength those women don't. Spacey as she occasionally seems, Brickell seductively exudes down-to-earth normalcy --no small virtue in a pop singer.
At the Roxy, she wasn't a particularly bold stage presence, and isn't likely to become one soon. No matter. There was a kind of whimsicality to Brickell's demeanor--even during the more serious or passionate songs--that somehow never threatened to trivialize the material. This is the kind of woman college boys dream about meeting in English lit class--one with long, wavy brown hair, who's fond of hats and dressing down, a sensitive poet-type who's perpetually smiling and not too full of herself.
Live, as on the album, the highlights tended toward simpler statements of emotion. "Nothing," in particular, is an affecting portrait of a woman's frustration with an uncommunicative lover who insists "nothing" is wrong. "Nothing keeps me up at night . . . / Nothing could cause a great big fight," sang Brickell, in a light, teasing voice that purposefully undercut the song's real tension.
Similarly touching was Brickell's elegy for another Edie--Sedgwick--called "Little Miss S.," which sketches the '60s actress/cult figure's victimization via drugs and men ("The village idiots in her bed / Never cared that her eyes were red / Never cared that her brain was dead"). Rather than righteous anger, though, the light tone of the pleasant musical setting suggests the objectivity of a sad observation tempered by time.
Brickell and her Bohemians often work off each other this way. It's difficult to imagine singer or band succeeding half as well without each other. Whereas Brickell can be on the wispy side, the New Bohemians are a tight, groove-oriented band--the complementary kind of pairing that could only have come about by happy accident.
Kenny Withrow's gentle, mellifluous guitar lines often indicated the influence (conscious or not) of African music, and percussionist John Bush added plenty of congas, but the Bohemians' sound is far from an ethnic one--it's closer to a light, sophisticated jazz-fusion. The band can also rock out quite nicely on occasion (the speedy neo-rockabilly shuffle "Keep Coming Back") or go folk ("Circle," a touching delineation of loneliness and alienation from old friends).
Brickell & the New Bohemians are also slated to play Saturday at Club Postnuclear in Laguna Beach.