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The Boston Phoenix Who's Next?

Emma Townshend's sweet beginnings.

By Joan Anderman

MAY 18, 1998:  Winterland (Elektra), Emma Townshend's debut release, begins with a poem by Emily Dickinson, a brief, graciously lurching rhyme called "Better Than Music." Townshend, who is 27, set it to asymmetrical plucked chords on a harp, and she turns the words in her mouth, like tiny gems, in a clear, breathless voice. The song sits like a banner over the door to Townshend's musical gallery: this is an Arty, Serious, Poetic album. In which terms it's only a partial success -- but for a debut album, that's saying a lot.

Townshend's words are pointed, abstract brush strokes. The colors run soft and the textures dreamy -- a wash made of piano, a bit of drum and guitar, and a smattering of electronic textures. Many of the tracks are short, introspective musings that materialize and vanish like so many miniature watercolors. She's Pete Townshend's girl by blood, but as a budding singer/songwriter Emma Townshend is a direct descendant of pop's illustrious piano women: Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Kate Bush, and Tori Amos.

The finest moments here come when Townshend juxtaposes that legacy -- lush, introspective keyboard work, psychologically dense lyrics, and emotive vocalizing -- with a modern aesthetic, as she does on "Ghost Kitchen," which examines the fractured morality of an amateur chemist who synthesizes and sells heroin. Delirious piano notes drop like strange rain on sheets of industrial drone in a beautifully psychotic-sounding blend, the whole of it twisting into a swerving, carnival-sideshow bridge and finally breaking down again -- the blissed-out melody facing off with ominous clatter.

But that's the exception rather than the rule. Most of the songs are simply stated, girl-at-the-piano rambles in which Townshend's influences, worthy as they may be, are heard all too roundly. "Groundswell" is a seven-and-a-half-minute impossibly linear meandering mood (buoyant, wistful, cautiously optimistic, you name it) that sounds as if it had been recorded at the end of a long night mainlining Amos's "Little Earthquakes" and Mitchell's "For the Roses." And "Five-a-Side Football," a meditation on the nature of celebrity (a rather precious perspective for a debut artist, even if your dad is in the Who) is an almost perfect replica of Laura Nyro's lavish piano pop, down to the swooning soprano and impassioned chording.

Townshend's singing is as unassuming as the arrangements, and at first listen it sounds cold -- especially compared to Amos's emotional flamboyance. Townshend isn't endowed with a bountiful natural voice. But she sings without fear or guile, and repeated listening reveals a restrained fervor, a coiled -- and at times disarming -- take on self-expression. Case in point: the Dickinson poem, which exults in the rapture of perfect music, is followed by "The Last Time I Saw Sadie," a dark, ambient investigation of an obsessive rivalry, where Townshend sings lines like "I'm saving bits of picture for my psycho bedroom" in a low, lean voice over slow, looped beats, piercing string figures, and spooky guitar sounds. Then she veers into "Walk at Night," an edgy waltz that brims with driven, curving piano chords and lyrics in list form that describe the transformational effects of a city in darkness. I call that an adventurous trio of opening tracks.

But a young artist's allegiance to her homegrown vision doesn't always serve a project well. Half the songs on the CD clock in at well under three minutes, and they're more like loose, lovely journal fragments than finished songs. Which is fine provided you're able to hang in the ether on command. "My Angel of Vertigo" is a careering, dissonant vision that moves swiftly through a deeply interior world ("my angel of vertigo/Too many blues moves/I have dreamt of you . . . etc.") where many will be hard-pressed to follow.

For all the transporting moments, there are few completely realized works. Still, Townshend's essence shines through the album's fragmented progress, and that's its great success. Winterland is a first glimpse of a songwriter unfurling, still searching for shape and structure, not yet in command of her fine ear and her full heart. In a way, that's the most exciting sort of debut release. Getting there, as they say, is half the pleasure.


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