Indigo Girls' flashy 'Swamp Ophelia' gets bogged down in sound

May 10, 1994|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

In yesterday's Today section, an incorrect Sundial telephone number was listed for Anne Arundel readers to call to hear the new recordings of Indigo Girls and Sonic Youth. The correct number is 268-7736.

The Sun regrets the errors.

From the first, the conventional take on the Indigo Girls was to peg them as latter-day folkies.

It seemed logical enough. They had the right look (working-class casual), the right background (years on the coffeehouse circuit) and, most importantly, the right sound (acoustic guitars and intertwining voices). All told, it was such a comfortable pigeonhole for the duo that neither Top-40 success nor MTV could dispel most listeners' initial impression.

"Swamp Ophelia" (Epic 57621, arriving in stores today) ought to change that in a hurry. Although it doesn't mark an especially dramatic change in their sound -- no, the Indigos haven't gone grunge or added a rapper to their entourage -- the album does find the duo abandoning the unvarnished simplicity of folk music for the carefully crafted sound of singer/songwriter pop.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. On one level, this shift allows the Girls to broaden their sonic palette. Rather than leave the album mired in the monochromatic strum of acoustic guitars, there's a wide array of instrumental color, fleshing out their tunes with everything from marimba to melodica.

Granted, the arrangements don't necessarily call attention to themselves. "Language of the Kiss," for instance, seems at first glance to present the Girls au naturel, with nothing beneath the vocal line but a touch of acoustic guitar. But a closer listen turns up electric bass, hand drums, piano and the marimba.

Other songs are less circumspect in their approach. "Fugitive," for instance, starts in a blaze of color, whipping cellos, trumpets and tubular bells into a semi-orchestral froth. Add in the Indigos' intertwining vocal lines, and the result seems to sweep the listener along in a lush swirl of sound.

Trouble is, that sound and fury signifies nothing, apart from a fondness for flashy arrangements. "Fugitive," like most of "Swamp Ophelia," is great when it comes to making grand gestures but a good bit weaker when it comes to making sense. It isn't that the lyrics tend more toward the overblown than the poetic -- though how else to describe lines like "I was aching with freedom kissing the damned"? -- so much as the way the song suggests urgency without seeming to have anything particularly urgent to say.

Runaway ambition, though, is clearly the group's Achilles heel. It's easy enough to spot on the lyrics sheet, and not just because the thing sports more verbiage than the average novella.

It's a little trickier, however, to pin down the problems in a song like "Touch Me Fall." Is it the way the string quartet section unexpectedly leads into a bad imitation of Springsteen's "Jungleland"? Is it the arty bridge with its noodling trumpet and self-consciously dissonant string glissandos? Or is it the ridiculous raucous rave-up that caps the song?

No, it's that each of those elements follow one another without any sense of purpose.

Still, even that bit of artistic self-indulgence pales when compared to the album-closing "This Train (Revised)." Apart from the fact that Woody Guthrie's "This Train Is Bound for Glory" wasn't particularly in need of revision, the ham-handed holocaust lyrics the Indigos insert convey not horror and outrage but cliched and predictable sanctimony. No doubt it was meant to be stirring, but frankly, the only thing it moved this listener to do was turn the stereo off in disgust.

'SWAMP' SOUNDS

To hear excerpts from the Indigo Girls' album "Swamp Ophelia," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7738; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6215 after you hear the greeting.

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