Melissa Etheridge
Your Little Secret

What's almost better than a box of sugar cereal with a prize at the bottom? Melissa Etheridge's new disc, with cute and clever liner notes that double as an interactive puzzle!

Anyone who buys Your Little Secret might as well take full and immediate advantage of the gimmickry because, sadly, the muddled symbolism of the inside jewel art (does it represent "woman" or "guy who used to be Prince"?) is the best thing about this recording.

Had it been Etheridge's debut, Your Little Secret would have been satisfactory, or at least forgivable. But as the "provocative" follow-up to her quintuple-platinum 1993 album Yes I Am, it is a woeful disappointment. Secret is shallow where Yes I Am was deep, uninspired where its predecessor was passionate. There is not a trace of the power of "I'm the Only One" here, not a dribble of the punch of "If I Wanted To."

The title track, for example, is eerily reminiscent of a Coca-Cola commercial--complete with a chorus that's flat as a three-day-old soda--while the second cut, "I Really Like You," opens with this bit of silliness: "I'll buy you mangoes, baby/Your favorite fruit/I'll shave everything, baby/I'll press my suit."

Um, excuse me--what?
Could Melissa Etheridge really write that, let alone sing it, with a straight face? Not even a giggle? And that's just a snippet of the ridiculous lyrics and paper-thin melodies that are spread throughout Secret like Miracle Whip. The lack of emotional honesty and the heavy application of thetrite may work for Madonna, but it's hardly the foundation upon which Etheridge has built her impressive songwriting career.

There are a few tracks, however, that approach the revered tradition of "I'm the Only One" and "Bring Me Some Water." "All the Way to Heaven" is a desperate love song with a delicate acoustic guitar and lyrics that sound like they came from the heart instead of off the cuff. Also, the hardy verses and gritty chorus of "I Could Have Been You" almost redeem Etheridge halfway through the album, but it's too little, too late. Besides, the artist saved her worst for last.

The closing cut, "This War Is Over," is a bit of musical melodrama that sounds like nothing if not the finale of a campy Broadway tragedy destined to close in its first week. Think Joan of Arc lashed to a neon stake seconds before the match is struck, with tendrils of faux fog wafting across the stage. Paint that picture in your head as you listen to "This War," and you're in for a guaranteed laugh fest as Etheridge builds to this painful whine of the Valkyrie: "Take off my shield/Carry my sword/I won't need it anymore/Find me a sky/Give me my wings/Frozen and broken but free."

What's next, "Hitler in Springtime"?
Welcome to the cheap seats.--Laurie Notaro

Are You Driving Me Crazy?
(Touch and Go)

The guys in Seam can't decide whether to use their guitars as tiny paintbrushes to delicately detail a song or as jackhammers to tear the hell out of its foundation. On their fourth LP, the Chicago-based indie rockers have it both ways, and create an alluring batch of power-pop ballads that swell, crash and recede like the giant wave on this album's cover.

Are You Driving Me Crazy? is a moody world of spare rim shots, stray, jangling notes, moaning guitars and languid chord changes. The music is in no hurry to get where it's going, and most of the tracks gradually accelerate to a noisy climax with exquisite tension. Ex-Bitch Magnet member Soo Yung Park isn't exactly Frank Sinatra (more like Poster Children's Rick Valentine), but he hits all the right notes, and his vocal stylings are just right in the context of these dreamy, introspective ditties. Park's voice glides and quavers just beneath the surface of the mix, and themore he whispers, the more we listen.--Matt Golosinski

Isle of You

The Road Home

Doesn't anybody release live albums without consulting a cellist first anymore? The new wrinkle in the "unplugged" trend is artists leaving the MTV logo out of it to keep all the profits (and, to be fair, artistic control) for themselves. Although the dreaded "U" word is missing from the title of the Pretenders' latest, Chrissie Hynde and company conveniently left the Telecasters at home for this acoustic overview of their back catalogue.

Isle of You surfaces with the nondescript ballad "Sense of Purpose"--something that's sorely lacking through most of these proceedings. Luckily, rote retreads of "Back on the Chain Gang" and "Brass in Pocket" are offset by highly emotional reworkings of "Hymn to Her" and, especially, "Kid." On the first Pretenders LP, "Kid" was a hard-rocking, bittersweet revamp of the Ronettes' "Be My Baby." Here, in its stripped-down form, it's more like "As Tears Go By," except the children whom the singer is watching at play come up to the window and tell her off. You ache along with Hynde's every tinge of regret for lost youth. Since "Kid" is the most likely candidate for a single, word to the wise is to buy it and forget about traveling the rest of this island's familiar terrain.

And while you're at it, forget about Heart's latest flat line. Let's be honest here--the only reason anyone even pays attention to the Wilson sisters anymore is to see what kooky device they'll come up with next to conceal Ann Wilson's inexorable weight gain.

First, Heart's video directors took to scrunching up the screen whenever Ann was in a shot and returning it to normal dimensions whenever svelte Nancy held court. Duh! That sure fooled us! Then Heart's last album cover split the Wilson girls' faces down the middle--as if halving Ann's double chin would make us think she only had one.

Now, the Heart camp is reduced to showing prepubescent photographs of the girls, when excess tonnage wasn't a career-threatening concern. What's next, infrared photos of Ann as an embryo? What are they so afraid of? If people mistake Ann Wilson for Carnie Wilson, someone might at least give her a copycat Ricki Lake talk show of her own! Better that to prop up a fading career than an album with (will it never end?) "unplugged" versions of "These Dreams" and "Barracuda."--Serene Dominic


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