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COVER STORY

Stepping Out of Character

The stories, mystery and magic are in their voices.

July 05, 1998|Laurie Winer | Theater Critic

Did you ever wonder what critics do, when they're not, well, criticizing? They're a lot more than the sum of their reviews. Almost like regular people. Really. The art critic likes junk TV. The movie critic swoons over opera. The theater critic listens to 'girl' singers. Go figure.

With that in mind we thought we'd indulge a summer fantasy and let our critics show a side of themselves you might not imagined. Here are some of the things they love to watch or when they're not even getting paid to do it.

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When I was 10 or so and did not know it was a cliche, I was caught by a liner-note description on one of Barbra Streisand's early albums. "She sings each song as if it were a three-act play," someone wrote. I accepted that as the explanation why I was so addicted to listening to Streisand; it sounded like a sophisticated reason. It made sense--with each song, she took me someplace emotionally. Whoever Eugene O'Neill was, he must do the same sort of thing.

Few people growing up Jewish in the '60s and '70s could have escaped the early Streisand. That trumpet call of talent--sexy, fearless, funny--offered me a connection to a grown-up world that wasn't predictable or dreary or pretentious. Hers was the voice that developed my addiction for female singers. As I grew up I listened raptly to women with more mystery, like Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday, and to original storytellers, like Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro. But it was always that quality of being taken on a journey that I craved from a song.

Streisand's later career shaped my theory that extreme fame--and the orchestrations that go with it--form an iceberg between an artist and the listener. I knew Streisand had left the building when I saw the video of her singing "Somewhere" (made in conjunction with "The Broadway Album" in 1985). As I remember it, she wore a diaphanous robe and stretched out her arms horizontally while the fog poured in and a choir of heavenly voices sang backup and the camera swirled around her. She sang the song as if she herself would personally deliver us to the Olympian place described in the lyric. The Jewish girl from Brooklyn had gone and become Savior of the World.

"Higher Ground," her latest album, is a collection of "inspirational" songs, all with the same entombed quality and the heavy orchestral armor of a singer who needs a layer of protection between herself and the world. Now that Streisand has left me bereft, I'm always looking for that original, heady, fused relationship with a voice that has a distinctive personality. Certain girl singers get very close to a lyric, in a particularly naked way, causing an effect described by T.S. Eliot like so: "[it is] music heard so deeply / That it is not heard at all, but you are the music / While the music lasts."

I've drawn up what may seem an odd list of 10 singers who have given me that kind of raw pleasure and taken me on a journey as well. I've excluded the great divas of the past. Too obvious. I've also excluded the current batch of babe singers--Tori, Sheryl, Jewel, Fiona, Ani, Alanis and Sarah--it's just too soon to tell. I have included singer-songwriters, as well as interpretive artists. My aversion to techno-anything and bias toward classic American pop and crafted lyrics will no doubt be felt. Here they are in alphabetical order.

MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER

While she has no patience for self-indulgent whining, she is deeply engaged with--and respectful of--real pain. In "It Don't Bring You," her best lyric, her protagonist figures out a relationship with a difficult man. As the chorus repeats three times, the singer acquires wisdom on top of sadness on top of redemption.

SHAWN COLVIN

I fell in love with her instantly when I saw her on "The Larry Sanders Show" singing "Polaroids." "Please no more therapy / Mother take care of me" is a great way to open a song. Few songwriters can employ so many complicated images and not be pretentious; in this song she offsets her phrases in a simple, infectious melody that forges ahead like a journey. Her sly sense of humor keeps her always grounded.

NANCI GRIFFITH

Though she sounds like Minnie Mouse in her patter, she has a luminous fragility when she sings. Her song (with Rick West) "Trouble in the Fields" is, in fact, a playlet, about a couple having trouble holding on to their land during the farming crisis of the '80s. Together the fiddle, the pedal steel and Griffith's voice convey the full hardship of what it means to have to "sell that new John Deere." It's a modern-day "Grapes of Wrath," full of the grace of struggle.

ETTA JAMES

She has so much power that she can go places other singers can't. In "At Last," she suggests the height and breadth of ecstasy felt when a person finds her world changed by love. When she sings "How Deep Is the Ocean," she seems capable of measuring its depth in her own emotional life.

DIANA KRALL

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