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Safe and sorry

Tracy Bonham makes a tepid major-label debut

by Brett Milano

Midway through Tracy Bonham's The Burdens of Being Upright (Island, March 19) comes a song called "One-Hit Wonder." It's the most straightforward lyric on the album; and the most jaded music-biz song in recent memory: "I'll give you my four-leaf clover, 'cause God only knows, that it's the only one of mine/And you'll hear it over and over, until it is built right in -- yeah, right into your filthy little mind." It's the sort of sour-grapes sentiment you'd expect to hear from an old rock star on the way down -- or from Don Henley at any stage of his career. But this is the debut album by a local indie darling who's become a major-label priority act, and you have to wonder why Bonham's getting on the defensive this early in the game.

Maybe it's because she realizes a lot of her original supporters are going to be put off by the album, which homogenizes too much of what made her interesting in the first place. The hit she's likely referring to in that song is "The One," a number about obsessive love that remains one of the most striking local demo tapes of the past few years. Local media latched onto her first (for the record, her initial write-up was as a Phoenix "Demo Derby" winner in mid 1994), but a major-label deal was in the pocket within six months of her debut gig. Hints of a predictable local backlash followed, but last year's Liverpool Sessions EP (CherryDisc) and her live shows continued to justify her buzz. Even though her band tended to change personnel on a monthly basis, Bonham seemed likely to earn both the fame and the credibility as long as she didn't do anything dumb.

From the sound of things, she has done something dumb -- namely, paid too much attention to the marketing department. Missing here is the quirkier side of Bonham's personality (the side that wrote a song called "I'm Not a Waif," on Liverpool Sessions, after she got called one too many times), as well as the musical eclecticism. Even with a 17-minute running time, the EP made more stylistic stretches -- a torch ballad, psychedelia, a kid's song, hardcore -- than this album, whose monochromatic guitar-band sound tries too hard to cover the commercial and indie bases at once. It was produced by Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie at Fort Apache, then (here's the tipoff) remixed with "additional production" by mainstreamer Tom Lord-Alge.

Although Bonham's early shows and tapes suggested she'd carve out a pop territory all her own, The Burdens of Being Upright is an alternative-format album that goes down like a jagged little pill. The best evidence is a re-recorded "The One," where she sounds like a suburban bar band covering her own song (the original version, produced by The Elevator Drops, remains available on Curve of the Earth's Girl compilation). The first thing missing is the snaky guitar lead that kicked off the original. The next is its appropriate psychedelic touches. On the original, Bonham's violin sounded like an unearthly shriek; here it just sounds like a violin.

But the main casualty is the dramatic nuance of Bonham's vocal. On the original she put on an ironic, waifish tone in the verses and sounded thoroughly possessed in the chorus; here she treats the whole thing like a fist-waving rock anthem. And that's a problem that recurs throughout. All three producers apparently put most of their effort into approximating a live-band sound, paying hardly any attention to the vocals. The climactic screams on "Sharks Can't Sleep" would have been more climactic if they'd been in tune.

It doesn't help that Bonham isn't a prolific songwriter (the album and EP include every original song I've heard her do live) and that her output is hit-and-miss. The one weak spot of her initial demo was "Mother Mother," a teenage rant that should have been discarded early on. (Yes, leaving home is scary, but "I'm bleeding to death" is overstating the case.) But it turns up as this album's leadoff track. The arena bombast on "Tell It to the Sky" is a new direction, but not one worth exploring. Only a couple of standout tracks emerge unscathed: "Bulldog" and "Navy Bean" are pop songs charged with imagination and nervous energy; the latter includes a sinister vocal and the album's best production touch (a lead guitar that sounds like a runaway electric razor). And "Kisses" has the haunted sound of Kristin Hersh's acoustic numbers, along with the bisexual hints that now seem to be a prerequisite for alternative imaging -- thank you, Jill Sobule.

Since major-label dumpings have become a familiar part of the Boston rock experience, it's hard to fault a promising artist for playing it a little safe. Then again, it looks worse if you get dumped anyway. Given Tracy Bonham's obvious and still-unharnessed talent, I'd rather have heard her make a few brilliant mistakes.

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