Picks and Pans Review: Short Sharp Shocked

updated 12/12/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/12/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Michelle Shocked

In the press kit used to publicize her second album, Shocked provides an array of nouns to describe herself: squatter, jailbird, expatriate, rape victim, skateboard punk rocker. A lot of critics latch on to one word from that list—punk—to describe her, partly because Shocked's years as a teenage runaway, adult drifter and temporarily jailed peace activist stamped a tough demeanor onto her tomboyish exterior. But musically Shocked doesn't sound at all like a typical punk rocker; she more closely resembles the protest-folk singers of the early '60s. With a tone somewhere between world-weary and worldly-wise, she seems a lot older than her 25 or so years as she delivers biting, country-tinged songs about her early life as rebellious Michelle Johnston in backwoods Gilmer, Texas. "Their lives ran in circles so small," she croons in Memories of East Texas. "They thought they'd seen it all so/ They couldn't make a place for a girl who had seen the ocean." Shocked also tells tales about the varied people whose lives touched hers during her world travels. The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore is the old-fashioned plaint of a coal miner who hits the skids when the mine closes. Graffiti Limbo expresses outrage about the death of Michael Stewart, a New York City graffiti artist who died in 1983 while in police custody. Anchorage marvels at the contrast between Shocked's rambling life and the stable married world of a childhood friend who is now "anchored down in Anchorage." Shocked's 1986 debut album, The Campfire Tapes, had a unique low-tech charm, recorded as it was on a portable recorder at a Texas folk festival campfire. But while the primitive technology made her sound like a stuffy-nosed character in a '40s cartoon, her new studio album reveals unexpected depth in her voice. Instead of camp-fire crickets, Shocked is accompanied now by a gentle melange of acoustic guitar, harmonica, dulcimer and other instruments that are played with restraint so as not to conflict with her simple singing style. Trendmongers may go overboard with their praise for Shocked, who is getting her big break during a year when short-haired iconoclastic female singers (Sinead O'Connor, Tracy Chapman) are the hot new thing. Short Sharp Shocked isn't quite as dramatic as the jacket photograph that shows Shocked being arrested at a San Francisco protest. But it does provide good, solid entertainment, overflowing with the spirit of a talented American storyteller. (Mercury / PolyGram)

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