Early in 1995, Denver native Jill Sobule emerged as a fresh new voice on the pop scene, singing about kissing a girl. Provocative, sure, but then Sobule was no newcomer. She had kicked around the club and coffeehouse circuit for years, and had already put out one album. But few heard the Todd Rundgren-produced Things Here Are Different, a collection of spirited and earnest singer/songwriter material such as “Sad Beauty” and “Tell Me Your Dreams.” It was an estimable debut — Sobule’s voice is far more elastic and expressive than the little-girl tag usually slapped on it suggests — but it was under-promoted and commercially ignored. Indeed, she has almost as many vocal tricks up her sleeve as Cyndi Lauper or Björk, which made her equally intriguing and difficult to market. MCA opted to not even release her second album, which was produced by Joe Jackson.
Fortunately, that was not the end of the story. “She’s gonna sing, you’re gonna listen,” a voice barks on Jill Sobule, and that’s what happened, thanks to “I Kissed a Girl” — a clever, perky ditty that only hints the encounter may have gone beyond the parameters of innocence. It was a novelty hit, but the rest of the album backs it up. Sobule leads with her wit here, crafting a series of engaging characters that include “Margaret,” the Catholic school goody two shoes who grows up to become a porn star, war couples from the French resistance and Bosnia in, respectively, “Resistance Song” and “Vrbana Bridge,” and the straitlaced shoe store manager with a wild nocturnal alter ego in “Karen by Night.” Sobule’s musical palette is varied, drawing on bossa nova for “(Theme From) The Girl in the Affair,” new wave rock on “Karen by Night,” acoustic troubadour styles on “The Jig Is Up” and “Trains.” The haunting “Houdini’s Box” (released contemporaneously with Kristin Hersh’s “Houdini Blues”) uses the legendary escape artist as a metaphor for the desperate desire to break one’s emotional shackles. For those who listen beyond “I Kissed a Girl,” Jill Sobule holds rewards that should have been recognized years ago. (Later pressings of the album include “Supermodel,” a song written by David Baerwald, recorded for the Clueless soundtrack and released as the follow-up to Sobule’s first hit.)
Sobule had a hard time following up the success of “I Kissed a Girl.” Happy Town is an unexpected falter, with a mean-spirited and angry vibe. Sobule rails against Prozac-muddled Middle America (“Happy Town”), conservative politics (“Christian Soldiers”) and failed hopes (“Bitter”). Many of the songs are fine, and she’s one of contemporary pop’s better observational songwriters, but the tone is unremittingly hostile. A record to respect rather than appreciate.
Sobule then returned to the minors, and the smaller label world proved a better fit. Pink Pearl is vastly more engaging, with compelling portraits of the Alzheimer’s patient “Claire” or “Lucy at the Gym,” who climbs the Stairmaster like a stairway to heaven. “Rainy Day Parade” is a joyous tribute to finding solace amid disappointment. “Mary Kay” is the true story of elementary school teacher Mary Kay Letourneau’s affair with a student. The remarkably sympathetic “Somewhere in New Mexico” ponders religion, belief in UFOs and the universal search for meaning with one of her best melodies. Every one of the songs tells a story — funny, sad, poignant — although it’s often unclear whether Sobule is judging the characters. The hilariously brilliant “Heroes” bemoans the hypocrisy of artistic and political icons. “T.S. Eliot hated the Jews / FDR didn’t save the Jews / All the French joined the Resistance / after the war.” There’s plenty of stylistic variety, from quiet folk to bouncy pop to orchestral flourishes. A success at every turn.
In the middle of her indie resurgence, Sobule branched out, making TV appearances and playing in Lloyd Cole’s backing band, the Negatives. I Never Learned to Swim (1990-2000), an adequate career summary, is surprisingly generous to Things Here Are Different, and contains most of the obvious highlights from the three studio albums that followed it. There’s previously unreleased and demo material, like “Big Shoes,” a presumably true story of unfashionable footwear that later became hip, and Laura Nyro’s “Stoned Soul Picnic,” rescued from a tribute album.
The Folk Years 2003-2003 is an oddly titled compilation of covers (“I Will Survive,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” “Que Sera Sera”) and Sobule originals in demo form. Not that it matters, but she’s not really a folksinger (although the tender version of Warren Zevon’s “Don’t Let Us Get Sick” would qualify).
Underdog Victorious doesn’t reach the heights of Jill Sobule or Pink Pearl, but it’s a welcome release after a long layoff. The bouncy title track is an empathetic portrait of a young man, a closeted glam rock homosexual trying to make his way through high school in the era of Matchbox 20. The personal and political mixes in the touching “Tel Aviv,” the story of a Romanian woman sold into prostitution in Israel. “Cinnamon Park” is an obvious rip-off of ’70s rock tropes, down to the winking marijuana references. Sobule bemoans/celebrates her fall from commercial prominence in songs like “Freshman,” in which she describes living with a roommate. The mix of melodic whimsy and deeper longing in songs like “Jetpack” (“I don’t have a jetpack / I don’t even have a car / All I have’s a token and a head full of stars / I wish you didn’t live uptown so far”) typifies the best work of her career and bodes well for her continued success.