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DO-IT-THEMSELFERS : Marc Cohn and Wendy MaHarry Are Singer-Songwriters With Their Work Cut Out for Them

December 19, 1991|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition

The singer-songwriters who came out of the 1960s had relatively few signposts to follow, and lots of room in which to roam.

A handful of pre-rock forebears like Hank Williams, Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie had shown that the creation and performance of songs could have heightened impact when it was a do-it-yourself affair. But they were exceptions to the compartmentalized process that ruled popular music during the '30s, '40s and '50s. For the most part, one group of people wrote songs, and another group sang what was given to them.

In the mid-'60s, Bob Dylan and the Beatles changed all of that. Since then, the measure of a pop musician has been the ability to put across a personal vision, from the first scratchings on paper to the last chords of a concert performance. The talent to write became as important as the gift to perform.

Now, nearly 30 years have passed since the singer-songwriter and the self-contained rock band turned Tin Pan Alley into a back alley on the musical street map. Consequently, the singer-songwriter business has become pretty cluttered. For writer-performers like Marc Cohn and Wendy MaHarry, trying to establish themselves in the '90s, it's almost impossible to discover new territory. But within established styles, there is still the challenge of crafting a memorable melody, and attaching it to lyrics that offer an individual's glimpse of the world instead of passing on tired catch phrases.

Cohn, whose self-titled debut album has been in the Top 200 for most of this year, sounds instantly familiar because he echoes so many familiar sources. His pleasantly gruff voice can recall the likes of John Hiatt, Richie Havens, Joe Cocker and Warren Zevon, though he doesn't take his singing to their most intense extremes. At certain moments, his phrasings and melodies also conjure Paul Simon.

Cohn does have enough grit and fervor to give his singing conviction, and he frequently works details into his love songs that make them more like personally envisioned scenes than rehashed generalities. On the other hand, the singer-pianist has a tendency to wax sentimental, and, on his album, to go for smooth, too-comfortable arrangements.

There's a streak of the individual artist in Cohn, but also an element of Billy Joel's approach, which substitutes pleasant surfaces for probing insights. It will be interesting to see which way he goes.

MaHarry, also a singer-pianist, focuses, like Cohn, on love as the Big Thing in life, and she does a good job of painting it in changing emotional hues. She also has a wide range of songwriting approaches, spinning out tunes with pure-pop appeal, or stepping out of the mainstream and bringing a darker, moodier, more quirky alternative edge to her music.

Her flexible voice, alternately airy and deadpan, doesn't lack for well-established points of comparison. There's some Stevie Nicks in MaHarry's huskier lows, some Kate Bush in her more plaintive, theatrical highs, and Suzanne Vega's influence crops up in breathy sung-spoken passages.

Several songs from her current album, "Fountain of Youth," have a decidedly Beatlesque feel; from time to time, MaHarry also can reach toward the emotional extremes heard in an edgier alternative band like Throwing Muses. Like Cohn's, MaHarry's songs would benefit from a more stark presentation than they receive on her highly layered recordings. She will be performing solo at the Coach House, while Cohn is accompanied only by a guitar player.

At her best, MaHarry has shown that she can craft some real gems. "Nothing Close to Love," from her current album, is a winning, bittersweet reverie. "All That I've Got," from her 1990 debut release, "Wendy MaHarry," is a joyful appreciation of love-found that also looks back on melancholy times left behind.

Raised in Rochester, N.Y., MaHarry came to Los Angeles to pursue her music. Judging from "California," another fine song from her first album, it was a move fraught with insecurities as well as determination. About 20 years ago, Joni Mitchell explored a similar theme in a song of the same title. It's a cluttered tradition, all right, but by staying true to lived experience, MaHarry finds a way to claim something of her own.

Who: Marc Cohn and Wendy MaHarry.

When: Saturday, Dec. 21, at 8 and 10:30 p.m.

Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.

Whereabouts: San Diego Freeway to the San Juan Creek Road exit. Left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Plaza.

Wherewithal: $21.50. The early show is sold out.

Where to call: (714) 496-8930.

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