Picks and Pans Review: Rumble Doll

updated 08/02/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/02/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Paul Scialfa

The words "long-delayed" have hovered around this album for more than a year, along with whispered suggestions that the first album by the second Mrs. Bruce Springsteen must need fixing. Now that it's here, Bruce cultists and cynics will have trouble responding to the former Street Band backup singer's solo debut as something more than a side project in the Springsteen opus. (Yes, Bruce plays guitar and keyboards on two of the 12 tracks.) For anyone with ears for something fresh and original, however, Rumble Doll tells a compelling story of one woman's sentimental education in love and rock and roll, and it marks the arrival of a songwriter who stands in no man's shadow.

On a first listen, the album seems restrained, almost tentative. By the second or third time, you can hear that Scialfa, who wrote all the songs, and the producer, Mike Campbell (who is also Tom Petty's lead guitarist), knew exactly what they were doing. Instead of flash and obvious hooks, the album displays pop craft and erudition. As the title suggests, Rumble Doll has a late '50s-early '60s aura, and the music includes subtle homages to Ronnie Spector, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison and the great girl groups.

The songs, on the other hand, are anything but stories of teenagers in love. The album opens with an invitation to "take a walk in toyland," and several of the songs explore the tension between childhood dreams and a dangerous grown-up world. Scialfa's slightly smoky voice can go from Kewpie girlishness to folkie sweetness to leather-jacket toughness. "Come Tomorrow," about a woman in love with a married man, and the gorgeous final track, "Spanish Dancer," about facing the dark side of a lover's soul, will inevitably seem to be about Scialfa's husband, but they triumph, like the album as a whole, by succeeding on their own daring terms. (Columbia)

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