Granted, there’s good cause for concern about the unclouded critical faculties of a heterosexual male who critiques the musical efforts of a winsome lass, but that’s no reason to penalize the cuties in our culture — it’s not their fault if they’re beautiful, although that won’t stop some from abusing the privilege. As irresistibly instinctive as it may be for straight men to flatter and praise such creatures, even from the safe distance of impersonal journalism, the talent of many — Lisa Loeb, Juliana Hatfield, Carol van Dijk, just to name a few — begs no unwarranted indulgence. So with that cleared up and out of the way, let it be said that Leona Naess — whose father, Norwegian shipping magnate Arne Naess, was for many years married to Diana Ross — is worth hearing as well as seeing.
An airy voiced singer with crafty delivery and a worldly angle on the usual matters of the heart, Naess got sympathetic support from producer Scott Litt on her debut, an unfocused but beguiling collection that balances strength and delicacy, wit and attitude. Perched on a branch above the self-absorption of Edie Brickell and the dumb hedonism of Sheryl Crow, Naess writes uncomplicated chamber ballads with light, sinuous melodies that befit the lounge jazz cool of her singing (the use of flute in the memorable “Lonely Boy” is a mistake, but not a big one). She’s not as distinctive a rocker, but her songs (“Anything,” the ethereal “New York Baby”) in that realm stand up easily to the guitar energy boost. To her credit, Ness betrays no obnoxious evidence of her upbringing, so there are no lyrics about how painful it is to grow up super-rich, or what the mean girl from boarding school said to her in group therapy. In “All I Want,” for better and worse the most revealing tune here, Ness names as icons “Marilyn” and “Steinem” (ahh, the perceptions of youth) but also declares, “All I want is the world’s approval / And to dance to every beat I move to / And I think that maybe then I would see / What they say they see in me.”
Music is as much the subject as the medium of I Tried to Rock You but You Only Roll, which is more self-conscious than Comatised but also more imaginative, self-assured and accomplished. On the disillusioned but chirpy title track, she nurses a romantic bruise with self-recrimination and defensiveness (“I was wrong to put u up there with a ton of dead heroes / And a ton of dead songs … Got a head full of new ideas / Got music bleeding from ears / And people who believe in me”). In “Mexico,” she remarks, “My friends think that we’re all wrong” and guesses her man could become “another muse for another tragic song.” In “Mayor of Your Town,” she promises, “I’ll be that song on your radio”; in “All the Stars,” which ends up being an apology to her father, someone Ness doesn’t bother to identify “killed the ’80s with another love song.” Downplaying the acoustic sensitivity aspect of the debut, the arrangements and higher-tech, dance-conscious production (by Martin Terefe, with preproduction by “musical advisor” Jason Darling) stay within the walls of modern semi-gloss pop and occasionally resort to gimmickry (as on the techno bounce and distorted voice of “All the Stars”; the brisk lullaby of “Sunny Sunday” has stray electronica for coloration), but the songs (“Hurricane” is especially engaging) are up to the challenge, and the album swings and slides with graceful 21st century precision.