Judy Small,
Never Turning Back
(Crafty Maid Records, 1998)

Subtitled A Retrospective, Never Turning Back claims to be a comprehensive overview of Australian artist Judy Small's best works. Never having heard any of her less-great hits, this puts me at a disadvantage off the bat -- I've got nothing with which to compare this collection.

The best I can do is tell who who she's like, and that part's easy. Her voice is clear and well-inflected, much like Joni Mitchell in the good years. Her songwriting is clever and tells a piece of the writer's life in each song, much like Dylan or early Tori Amos (in her pre-surrealism period). The music itself is deceptively catchy -- to the point where you don't realize you're humming it later, like Joan Osborne.

What makes Never Turning Back different is that the parts don't add up to a cohesive whole. It's like a patchwork quilt that doesn't quite match up, or a symphony orchestra with one section lagging a measure behind.

Most, if not all, of the songs are acoustic, played on a guitar or two, with Small's low soprano over them as a focal point. At times, it is badly mixed, losing some of the accompaniment under the voice or vice versa. During several of the songs, where the lyrics figure more heavily into the equation, this isn't necessarily a bad thing -- but it is distracting, rendering the editing's intended purpose to a position where it falls short.

Despite the technical aspects, there is a definite potential in a handful of cuts. The first on the disc, for example, "Sacred Ground," is undeniably catchy, is played and mixed well, and has a chorus that's fodder for a repeating loop inside your head. The politics of the song (which, I believe, is about the Christianization of either Ireland or Scotland, though it's never named as such) may not resonate with all listeners, but the melody will. For hours after the CD had played out, the central melody played in my head.

Nearly all of Small's work is politically charged, incidentally. With songs like "Just Another Crazy on the Street" (about mental illness and homelessness) and "Charlesworth Bay" (dealing with environmental issues), the perky melodies seem to be almost at odds with her message.

Her more humorous songs convey her purpose much more effectively. In "The Advertising Game," for example, the quick tempo and bouncy melody works -- Small tells the story of her brief brush with the advertising gods-that-be, and how they've never called her back. In short bursts, Small gives the jingle she was supposed to sing: "Well, Delilah's Diet Scheme will make you gorgeous, young and lean / In a week or maybe two your flap will fly / So come and diet with Delilah, on your face we'll put a smile / And diet with Delilah 'til you die!" The entire "jingle" (obviously exaggerated for effect) is sung and played at double-time, giving it a carnival effect. Oddly enough, it works.

To be completely honest, I doubt that it's Ms. Small's "fault" that this retrospective isn't better than it is on the whole. Seen live, I imagine that she'd be entertaining -- with her wit and flair for the dramatic, I'm sure her music would be an apt reflection.

Unfortunately, something's lost in the translation. Maybe a better producer or better facilities would have saved it. As it stands now, this is a nice album, but not a compelling one, and you'd be better advised to pick up tickets to her next show.

[ by Elizabeth Badurina ]

Buy it from Amazon.com.