fortysomething whose nerve endings still respond to the impulses of women half her age is a force to be reckoned with. On five albums stretching back nine years, Amy Rigby has detailed the compromises and aspirations of women who have teenage children but still listen to their Blondie albums once in a while (I bet she listens to the eponymous record more than Parallel Lines), and on occasion still have the kind of sex that, if not the equivalent of the coitus they dreamt about as teenagers listening to “X Offender,” forces them to wonder why they’re not getting more of it.
Let’s get this out of the way: Little Fugitive is a fantastic album, in a career full of them. Rigby has become frighteningly skilled at writing and singing shrewd reports from the front. The album’s centerpiece, “The Trouble With Jeannie,” is a song only a songwriter—a woman—weathered by experience could have written. Accepting the rueful paradox that generosity doesn’t come easy, Rigby can’t help but like her lover’s ex-girlfriend/wife. If her lover had the good sense to choose her, she implies, he showed equal taste in dating Jeannie. Rigby’s voice, a crinkly marvel, never demands compassion from her listeners the way Lucinda Williams’—another great songwriter with a similar grasp on the power of the demotic—has in recent years. The tinkly, fey arrangement (sparkly keyboards) calls to mind those dreaded Aimee Mann-Jon Brion baubles, but Rigby has the confidence to write simply:
How can I pick up where she never left off?Which is not to say that Rigby cannot write baroque extended metaphors. “Like Rasputin” is an empowerment anthem as rousing as Liz Phair’s “Extraordinary,” with the outlandish analogy (Amy in miniskirt and fake eyelashes was as indomitable as the fake mystic/consort to the Romanovs) finding its correlative in the hilariously overstated guitars of Phair’s paean to self-love. But since Rigby’s emotional range surpasses her vocal range she gives away the game in a way that the terminal flatness of Phair’s talk-singing no longer could on 2003’s Liz Phair (although she reached Rigby levels of affecting unaffectedness on 1998’s Whitechocolatespaceegg).
We’re like a club of two who’ve seen him with his clothes off
But, like her idol Debbie Harry, whose career stalled thanks to leaden albums like Autoamerican, Rigby falters when she indulges her fondness for genre exercises past the point at which homage and mere facility intersect, with often-unpleasant results; neither one should give a damn about being Stewardess of The Great American Songbook. The Cole Porter-isms of “Needy Men” is best left to Nellie McKay; “Girls Got It Bad” would have been awesome had it been called “Girls Want It Bad,” which is how I first heard the chorus. And “Dancing With Joey Ramone,” though it’s mighty charming and includes the album’s best riff (courtesy of “Blitzkrieg Bop”), is too self-satisfied for my taste; it’s as if Rigby wanted to impress us with how many allusions she can pack into three minutes (Pat Benatar, “Be My Baby,” OK, we get it).
Rigby should trust the signifying power of these allusions. Better she stick with the hard-won knowledge of “The Things You Leave Behind,” as desolate a love song as any you’ve ever heard, worthy of the Go-Betweens. If she wants to rock like Joey Ramone, then she should record more songs like the guitar workout “I Don’t Wanna Talk About Love.” But any critic who accuses an artist of attempting too much at once is being churlish; in the case of Amy Rigby, it’s because we want more of what she does best, even though we also note that few fortysomething woman are pop polymaths. Liz Phair, the ball’s in your court.