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Indigo Girls' latest simply not up to their best

Rites of Passage
Indigo Girls.
Epic Records.
By Chris Roberge
Arts Editor

It simply is not possible to listen to the latest Indigo Girls release, Rites of Passage, which is due in stores this May, without comparing it to the duo's previous efforts. That's really too bad, because Rites of Passage is certainly not a bad collection of new songs, but relative to Strange Fire and their outstanding eponymous follow-up, it is disappointingly fair. Nomads, Indians, Saints was not quite as strong as the first two albums, and Rites of Passage only continues the downward trend.

Perhaps one of the reasons for the decline in quality of the Indigo Girls' last two studio albums is their increasing reliance on denser arrangements. Amy Ray and Emily Saliers are excellent performers, and with only their acoustic guitars, they can create a mood of absolute intimacy that can explode in an instant into jarring intensity. When they gather a more complete band around them, the effect is often less a fleshing out of a song than a type of sonic sandpaper smoothing out the rough edges of the pair's delivery, edges that make their music so special.

"Galileo," by Emily, fortunately does not suffer from the accompaniment it is given. An interesting and inventive percussion rhythm introduces the song and continues throughout while Emily's playful lyrics about reincarnation swell high above on waves of humor and whimsy. "Ghost," also by Emily, isn't quite as fortunate. Lyrically, the track shines as one of the album's best. Emily sings of the human ability to create a beautiful and romantic memory of a past lover that ignores all of the pain and problems of the real relationship. Her imagery is as wonderful as always in lines such as "The Mississippi's mighty but it starts in Minnesota at a place where you could walk across with five steps down. And I guess that's how you started like a pinprick to my heart but at this point you rush right through me and I start to drown," but the song's omnipresent string section threatens to squelch any true emotive power with sappiness.

The biggest surprise of Rites of Passage is that Amy Ray's songwriting is nowhere near as powerful as it has previously been. Her "Three Hits" and "Joking" are set to fairly catchy melodies, but her lyrics lack the potency listeners have come to expect of her. And after listening to "Chickenman" twice, I'm still at a loss. Amy has explained that the song is about an old man who lives in a trailer in the middle of a junkyard off of a highway. She said of him in an interview, "This guy is deep, he had layers of character underneath that rough skin." Not much of that depth is present in the song, which is a stream-of-consciousness account of dead animals and junkyard Zen. I think that more can and should be expected from the writer of "Strange Fire" and "Kid Fears."

Amy's singing and playing are excellent on a cover of Dire Straits' "Romeo and Juliet," however. And the biting and aggressive lyrics that more typically characterize her writing are present on "Nashville." The harshly critical song was written by Amy when she was a student at Vanderbilt University appalled by the oppressive atmosphere of racism and sexism that existed both on the campus and in the city. Her disgust is made obvious in the lines "Nashville, you forgot the human race. You see with half a mind what colors hide the face. Nashville, I'd like to know your fate. I'd like to stay awhile but I've seen your lowered state today."

Ultimately, many of the songs on Rites of Passage are enjoyable. "Airplane" is a cute, if somewhat vapid, take on the fears associated with flying and the promises one jokingly makes when imagining one's self at death's door. And "Love Will Come To You" is a kind-hearted promise from one friend to another of future love replacing present loneliness as Emily describes her "face pressed up against love's glass to see the shiny toy I've been hoping for." But the enjoyment derived from the new album is never in the same league as that associated with the group's past work. Rites of Passage is a good album, but it simply isn't a good Indigo Girls album.