Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Womanly Virtues

Les Femmes frontwomen got it goin' on; now, about those backing musicians...

By Michael McCall

AUGUST 9, 1999:  The recent installment of Les Femmes Qui Rock, the ongoing club series spotlighting Nashville-based female rockers, underscored a chronic problem among both local and national musicians: The women out front come on like there's a riot going on, while the guys in the band look like they're waiting for a bus.

At 12th & Porter on July 20, three consecutive bands featured women vocalists who shot live sparks of charisma and talent. But only Soraya's multi-dimensional band matched the singer's flame-throwing energy. The others--Hangman's Daughter and The Evinrudes--presented intriguing female singers shackled by instrumentalists who failed to match their potency. What should have been explosive shows wound up as mildly entertaining sets.

At the moment, Hangman's Daughter and The Evinrudes rank among the city's most successful and hardworking local rock outfits. Each band deserves the attention too, mostly because of the engaging woman holding the microphone.

With Hangman's Daughter, almost everything seems in place. Singer Sherrie Phillips is a finger-jabbing, knee-dropping powerhouse who adds fuel to her powerful voice with a kinetic, sexual presence recalling that of Tina Turner, Mick Jagger, or Steven Tyler. Her energy, like her voice, has a natural flow; her aggressive strutting doesn't have the self-conscious phoniness that hampers someone like the Black Crowes' Chris Robinson. She grunts and howls lyrics with bluesy abandon, and her stage moves add the exclamation point.

The band--featuring husband Chris Isola on guitar, his brother Matt Isola on drums, and Steven Winter on bass--is more than competent. But the rhythms could use more punch, and Chris Isola needs to break out of his workmanlike chord changes and add more flamboyance to the band's sound. A singer like Phillips needs a foil--think Jagger/Richards, Daltrey/Townshend, Tyler/Perry, or, for a local example, Ringenberg/Hodges. Give her that, and stronger songs that accentuate her gifts, and Hangman's Daughter could own the kind of strengths that attract both critical kudos and mainstream head-banging appeal. (Hangman's Daughter performs this Saturday at 12th & Porter, and the band will Webcast the show live from its Web site, http://www.hangmansdaughter.com, starting at 11:30 p.m.)

The Evinrudes' problems are a bit thornier. It's not hard to figure out why the band spent some time on Mercury Records, or why they've won several awards, including a Nashville Music Award for Best Unsigned Band (a category they once again qualify for). Singer Sherry Cothran has a smoky, textured purr of a voice that works well expressing the irony-laden songs of her husband, guitarist Brian Reed.

But it's the very self-conscious superficiality of the songs that limits her range of emotion. As a songwriter, Reed is overtly clever, but his tunes have no real substance or punch. He's a world-class name-dropper: His lyrics cite, among others, Pat Boone, Michael Jackson, Otis Redding, Elvis Presley, Anne Boleyn, Tony Bennett, the Pope, Mick Jagger, Jesus, Hoss Cartwright, Ferdinand Magellan, Vincent Van Gogh, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Marlon Brando. But the names are largely interchangeable, because Reed doesn't use them for anything other than their pop appeal. His songs only show how much cultural detritus he, and maybe the rest of us, have absorbed. They're too crafty and clever to be called bad, but adroit wordplay wears thin fast when it's this weightless.

Meanwhile, Reed's quasi-blues guitar style, which breaks up the melodic pop arrangements with misplaced lead-guitar clichés, keeps The Evinrudes' shows from gathering momentum. The schizophrenic musical arrangements--which Cothran once described as part Credence Clearwater Revival, part Ten Years After--create a hodgepodge of styles that clash more often than complement each other.

Of the three artists on the bill, Soraya is the one just beginning to break into the club scene. As one of the founding foursome of Les Femmes Qui Rock, she takes full advantage of her role by putting on fresh, engaging performances. A startlingly capable vocalist, she owns the lung power of Martina McBride or any of the chest-pounding divas so popular on the charts these days, and she works this strength with an elastic, expressive range. Rather than simply shake the roof with her power, she presents modern, rhythm-driven pop that merges spirituality and sexuality into joyous release.

Of all the performers on the bill, she's the one who brought a band that participated nearly as much as she did in the party onstage. Though the sound mix could have used more muscle, the band itself exerted both energy and expertise in a way that focused more attention on the groove than on their individual skills. Simply put, they just cut loose and had a ball, and Soraya made the most of it. If her cohorts pay better attention to her example, Les Femmes Qui Rock really could have something to sing about.


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