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Syd Straw's Surprise nearly spoiled by poor production

SURPRISE

Syd Straw

Virgin Records

By DEBBY LEVINSON

SYD STRAW'S BEEN STIRRING FOR quite some time. After her stint as lead singer of the Golden Palominos and as session vocalist on albums such as the dB's Like This, Straw has finally put out an album of her own.

Straw's studio work and association with the R.E.M.-jangly-guitar underground helped her to recruit a variety of musicians -- X's John Doe sings on one track, Richard Thompson lends his guitar flourishes on two songs, and R.E.M. guru Michael Stipe contributes lyrics and vocals to "Future 40's (String of Pearls)." I expected a stellar album from such an impressive cast; instead, I found one ripe with potential, but sorely abused by overproduction and unsatisfying melodies.

Part of the problem with Surprise is that Straw extended her guest-star approach to the album's production, bringing in no fewer than three producers, not including herself. Even Straw's own efforts are a mixed bag -- of the four songs for which she takes sole production credits, only "Future 40's" is truly successful -- her treatment of the country tearjerker "Almost Magic" is so layered with her own multitracked voice it tends to murkiness rather than the lush harmonies she is after.

The Anthony Moore productions fare no better. Moore drowns the country twang of "Heart of Darkness" in an echoey pop ending and brings in a funk melody on "Crazy American" that overpowers Straw's pure voice. To their credit, Moore and Straw deliver a bitter, accusatory version of the dB's "Think Too Hard" that is every bit the equal of the original.

The most disappointing part of Surprise, however, is not its poor production but its unfulfilled potential. Much like 10,000 Maniacs' Natalie Merchant, Straw writes lyrics that read more like prose than poetry and which need simple, uncluttered melodies to show them at their best. The finest song on the album is the Stipe collaboration, "Future 40's," which evinces frustration at the less-than-perfect state of the modern world:

[it1p,1p]

This isn't the way I dreamed

it would be someday (this is

what I've settled for) if I had

the chance I'd find a better way

I had some fine dreams

I traded them away

The future looked like the 40's.

[it0,0]

Only one other Straw composition manages to match melody to lyrics: "Sphinx," which I heard performed on an IRS Records television program several years ago and which remains as hypnotic now as it was then. For this song, Straw is credited as storyteller, not vocalist -- an important distinction. "Sphinx" is a quirky fable set to music, a tale of Straw's mythical "jinx who had too many drinks." Accented by Richard Thompson's delightful finger-picking guitar and "the yarn interlude" (a spoken-word explanation of Sphinx's conviction on charges of lustfulness), "Sphinx" is charming, a modern fairy tale.

Surprise closes with the ethereal "Golden Dreams," a tune with a haunting melody and a delicate tin whistle counterpoint. This song's simplicity points out the considerable shortcomings of its more complex, less melodic counterparts, however, and left me even less satisfied than before with Surprise. Syd Straw has the talent to produce a first-rate album; it's a shame that Surprise isn't the one.