Syd Straw

  • Syd Straw
  • Surprise (Virgin) 1989 
  • War and Peace (Capricorn) 1996 

As an unknown, Straw — one of very few vocalists to whom the description “honey-throated” can be accurately applied — swiped the spotlight on the Golden Palominos’ Visions of Excess from the likes of Michael Stipe, Jack Bruce and John Lydon. On Blast of Silence she provided grace notes to an otherwise confused product. Her self-produced solo debut, Surprise, boasts a guest list that suggests a hipper version of the bloated superstar processions Peter Asher used to assemble for James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt. As a result, inveterate family-tree makers now have a way to connect ex-Slapp Happy keyboardist Anthony Moore and Tom Petty sideman Benmont Tench — they’re both here.

While never less than enjoyable listening, Surprise often falls victim to the diffusion that invariably attends Big International Productions. It’s slackly paced, and some of the songwriting doesn’t do her justice — the nonsensical, wanting-to-mean-something obscurities of “Future 40’s (String of Pearls)” are obviously co-writer Stipe’s, but they’re annoying if you pay attention to them. On the other hand, Straw sometimes goes over the top when a lighter touch is called for — the gallows-humor wordplay of “Sphinx” would be better served by offhanded irony than belting. Still, when she hits it just right, as on Peter Holsapple’s “Think Too Hard,” she’s absolutely undeniable.

Scarcely a prolific songwriter, Straw flew under the radar for a number of years before releasing her second album. War and Peace wisely moves away from the producer-directed model of Surprise and is a more straightforward pop/rock record with strong country elements, backed by Missouri’s Skeletons. Straw’s vocals are tremendous throughout, and the album has a tougher tone musically than the overly glossy Surprise, and she has a lot on her mind. “The Toughest Girl in the World” and “CBGBs” are just two of the exquisitely wounded tales that Straw has to share about a painful and seemingly long- dead love affair. Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde co-wrote “Million Miles”, which fits the same mold. However, the rest of the material (and presumably, the misery) is Straw’s alone.

While Straw has not released any albums under her own name since, her singing remains in demand, and she has appeared as a duet partner or soloist on a variety of tribute albums, soundtracks and compilations. A compilation to round up these scattered tracks would be a boon for her fans. Among the highlights of Straw’s itinerant career are a duet with Evan Dando on Richard Thompson’s “For Shame of Doing Wrong” on Beat the Retreat, an unlikely cover of Mission of Burma’s “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” from a 1993 soundtrack and a striking and lovely medley of the Pretenders’ “2000 Miles” / “I Go To Sleep” which appeared on a Singles Only Label 45. A third studio album is predicted for 2006.

[Glenn Kenny / Michael Zwirn]

See also: Morells