Surprise is an appropriate title for this playful debut solo album by the former lead singer of the Golden Palominos. With the help of many gifted, idiosyncratic collaborators—John Doe (X), Michael Stipe (R.E.M.) and Richard Thompson, among others—Straw and her breathy soprano range from folk ballads (Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times”) to hard rockers (“Racing to the Ruins”) to longing love songs (“Almost Magic”). About the only thing that doesn’t emerge is a clear personal vision. It’s as though so many talents went into this that Straw herself is missing.
The album opens with a hard-rocking number called “Think Too Hard”: “You think too hard, you blow yourself in two.” The song provides an ironic stance—lest we think that Straw doesn’t know she is thinking too hard about thinking too hard. And a combination of strong electric guitars and acoustic playing sets the tone for an album of mixed moods. (“Think Too Hard” seems a personal statement, but it’s one of the few songs on the album Straw herself didn’t have a hand in writing.)
The purest moments on Surprise come in Straw’s sweet, vulnerable and precise love songs. “Chasing Vapor Trails (His Turn to Cry),” for instance, is about seeing a man at his worst: “I gave you 10 second chances/ You gave me nine alibis.” When she adopts an Everywoman voice on such songs as “Future 40s (String of Pearls),” Straw roams too far. Lines like “Meanwhile the world would try to mend/The future looked like the ’40s” seem cryptic. But Straw can get it just right, as on “Racing to the Ruins,” which opens with the conceit, “We are like angels in heat/ We have a lustful life.” Then there is the exactly relevant “Sphinx”—”She speaks in riddles ’cause that’s just the way she thinks”—an allusion to the artifact that, like Straw, is nonetheless intriguing for being so stubbornly unrevealing. (Virgin)