First emerging as a witty, self-aware West Coast delegate to the mid-’80s fast folk movement, Cindy Lee Berryhill always bore a broader agenda than what could be achieved with a single guitar. Not that she wasn’t perfectly able to put over clever original songs with simple apparatus (as she did on her first two albums), but Berryhill didn’t reach her creative stride until her rebirth as a more ambitious pop auteur on 1994’s delightfully baroque Garage Orchestra.
On the debut, Cindy Lee comes off as an endearing flake who at times may remind you of a folky Patti Smith or a female Jonathan Richman in his Modern Lovers days. Like them, she’s no great singer or musician, but her songs, mostly about middle-class adolescent and post-adolescent life crises (alienation, drug addiction, suicide) not only ring true, they do so without lapsing into cliché or self-pity. There’s also an ironic sense of humor at work, best seen in “Damn, Wish I Was a Man,” a catalogue of reasons for penis envy that contains such gems as “Wish I was a man, I’d be sexy with a belly like Jack Nicholson.”
For Naked Movie Star, producer Lenny Kaye beefed up Berryhill’s musical surroundings, expanding and amplifying the lineup (an acoustic trio on the debut) on a number of songs. In fact, after a couple, you may think Cindy Lee’s working on becoming Southern California’s female Springsteen. Fortunately, the first album’s spirited quirkiness eventually re-emerges, complete with a new set of purposeful musical reference points that include Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan, Peggy Lee, the Beach Boys and Patti Smith. Naked Movie Star moves Berryhill into new areas while remaining true to what made her interesting in the first place.
Garage Orchestra, an army of instrumentalists — playing everything from clarinet and cello to banjo, vibraphone and tympani — helps Berryhill deliver inventive, thoughtful, entertaining songs that fully deserve the diverse junior Phil Spector productions. And her singing is luminously entrancing, as in the astonishing harmony exercise “Gary Handeman,” an academic ode which sounds in spots like the Association, and the swooping waves of the intrinsically absurd “Etude for Ph. Machine.” Berryhill pumps out ideas — great, wack and in between — like a fountain, delivering the dream fantasy of “Song for Brian” (Wilson), the genial idealism of “I Want Stuff” and a boppy sci-fi epic (“UFO Suite”) as if such ingenuity grew in garages.
Recorded with three core alumni of the Garage Orchestra, Straight Outta Marysville brings Berryhill back to modest folk-pop with vibes and tympani adding cool touches; a couple of the autobiographical songs are performed solo on acoustic guitar. (She also turns the clock back in a rambling, jazzy raconteur rendition of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” that’s almost as long as the one on the 1968 Al Kooper/Mike Bloomfield Super Session LP.) But while the arrangements are neat and clean, Berryhill’s singing employs a pile of irritating stylistic maneuvers that leave her sounding like Edie Brickell gone native. What’s more, about half of the songs cross from being revealing to being self-indulgent, reminiscences that don’t resonate beyond the singer’s world.