LA’s Sun60, which is essentially instrumentalist David Russo and vocalist Joan Jones, started out playing acoustic folk — sometimes pop-minded and bouncy, sometimes melancholic — but soon satisfied a need to rock by adding raunchy guitar and big beats. The group’s wispy unplugged side and grungy alter-ego both produced satisfying results, but they never successfully united the two styles.
Sun-60 (the dash was subsequently excised) presents the twosome before they found themselves between alt-rock and a soft place. Produced by Greg Penny (Cher, Elton John, k.d. lang), the album has a polished, sometimes cloying consistency that leaves Russo’s compositions sounding more like car commercials than coffee shop interludes. It’s still an enticing debut, however, thanks in no small part to bassist Glen Holmen, drummer David Raven and the shining light of Joan Jones. Her impressive voice can be reckless and bluesy one moment (“Landslide,” “Many Miles”), baby-smooth and coquettish the next (“Responsible”). Her energetic vocal vaults in “Kiss the Train” make for a fun ride that doesn’t go anywhere, while “Runaway Jane” unbuckles her Star Search moment: a showstopping seven-second note. (Jones also plays trumpet(!?), and while it gives the pretty pop of “Middle of My Life” an unexpected ending, its appearance in the slow-burning love song “Take Me Home” is like an unintentional comedy skit where the woman breaks into Dixieland at the height of passion.) The two tracks Russo sings — the tepid “Cold Water” and “Too Much Tube,” a popabilly ditty — prove his talent, but like Lindsey Buckingham and the Primitives’ P.J. Court, he would be nowhere without the hot blonde in the band.
On their next outing, the duo (with bassist Holmen) eschews the first album’s aversion to the hard stuff and dives headfirst into modern rock. Produced by Russo — although it’s “executively” produced by Scott Litt (R.E.M., Indigo Girls, Incubus) — Only features drummer Jack Irons (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam) and guitarists Dave Navarro (Jane’s Addiction, RHCP) and Alain Johannes (Eleven, Queens of the Stone Age). This extra crunch is best applied to “Mary Xmess,” which boasts not only a squawking Navarro lead but also Jones’ evolved (and just plain weird) wordplay: “8900 days so far / And who counts the womb anymore?” and “Demon fairy, our poor Mary / Sucking all the glo from glory.” Even with LA’s finest aboard, Joan remains Sun60’s most versatile attribute. While her sweet side dominates the standout tracks — “Hold On,” “All of the Joy,” “Somebody” — her voice also conjures up Lush and Curve (“Tuff to Say”), Juliana Hatfield’s punk-pop coo “(Mary Xmess”) and a cocktail soloist at the end of a long night (“Pressure”). Only even allows Russo a triumphant turn at the mic with the wonderful “Water 3X,” which scores bonus points for finally finding a proper use for Jones’ trumpet.
Obviously inspired by their run-in with hard rock, Sun60 morphed into a half-hearted grunge band with good intentions. Crediting brother/bassist Eddie Russo, guitarist Bret Jensen and drummer Mike Lawrence as full-fledged members, Headjoy delivers Vs.-era Pearl Jam riffs (“Paper Napkin,” “Whachudunno,” “Onto You”) and amped Jim Morrison/Patti Smith chants (“This judge is thoroughly good” in the bluesy “Desert Songs” and “You have left me tripled in knots / I’ll have nothing to do with today” in the title track). It’s an impressive clamor — even when it shouldn’t be. Two songs allow Joan to permeate the deluge — “Hanging Out” and “Grass is Greener,” both of which are beautiful — but Russo and co-producer Nick DiDia pump the rest with enough commotion to fill an arena. The worst offender, “Sweething,” starts with effects out of the Jimi Hendrix catalog, dangles an enchanting mournful lullaby, then snatches it away with intrusive drums and a blah-blah guitar solo. The ploy almost works, as does the group’s newfound tough-guy image, but it’s too much too late.
After Sun60’s dissolution, Jones faced the same dilemma that Beck and Liz Phair (and about a hundred other fringe dwellers) confronted towards the end of the decade: where to go now that teen-pop and nu-metal had squelched the early-’90s “alternative” scene. Digressions are expected with such unavoidable pressure, but after Joan’s past history as an accomplished chameleon, why did she choose to become the next Sheryl Crow? As produced by DiDia, Starlite Criminal — an understated declaration of musical freedom — documents her attack on adult contemporary with only minor victories. The mindless “Party” is a catchy bass-propelled dance number; “Forgetful” and “The Lonely On” show restraint that points to brighter days. But too often, tempting touches like girl-group harmonies and chilly piano are overrun with big, sloppy choruses that break any emotional momentum.