The spoken-word glut may have given verbally oriented artists outside hip-hop a foot in the door of ’90s youth culture but, confronted with the prospect of committing their work to tape, even the most serious proponents of the nouveau coffeehouse have reached for such old-fashioned rock’n’roll implements as loud guitars and steady 4/4 beats. Maggie Estep, a longtime fixture on New York’s poetry/performance art scene, is no exception. Even though her solo performances seethe with a star-quality combination of charisma and content that should make such crutches superfluous, Estep’s album, No More Mr. Nice Girl (which incorporates material from her similarly named one-woman show), finds her so bent on coloring within the lines of rock song structure that she sacrifices her usual slashing intensity for mere melodicism. (Her accompaniment on the record comes from a trio called I Love Everybody, which includes Bush Tetras guitarist Pat Place.)
It’s hard to find fault with Estep’s verse, rife as it is with ribtickling one-liners and painfully precise social detailing. From the pungent sexuality that permeates “Fuck Me” to the Grand Guignol carnage that drips from “My Life of Gardening,” Estep’s imagery is such a sensual delight that it’s almost — but not quite — possible to forgive her tentative, generic “singing.” But only when Estep bobs and weaves through the closing “Bad Day at the Beauty Salon” (the album’s only full-length spoken piece), attacking the lines with true gusto, are her true strengths revealed.