Surprise – Syd Straw (1989)

Surprise album cover
Surprise album cover

One of the counter points of the rise of electronic music during the ’80s and ’90s was the resurgence of folk based musical styles in rock. The success of R.E.M. kind of paralleled the growing number of rock artists who relied more on analog string instruments as opposed to synthesizers. It was as there was a movement to counter the electronic nature of pop music.

Female artists were instrumental in the folk rock culture that emerged out of the 1960s. Joni Mitchell and Carley Simon were just two extremes of how folk based music splintered to extremes of the pop sphere. Women led the march of folk influenced rock through the ’70s, they were oddly silent through much of the decade to follow. It was if disco redefined the roles women were to play if they wanted to be on the pop charts.

In the post disco era, a female counterpart to folk rock resurgence lead by the likes of R.E.M.,The Connells or The Jayhawks was becoming hard to find. Not that women were absent from this resurgence, talented singer-songwriters like Rickie Lee Jones just did not have the same appeal as say a Pat Benatar or Annie Wilson in their prime. For Syd Straw, her career as a backup singer would place her in the right place at the right time. For a moment it looked like she would fill a void in folk sounding rock.

Straw was one of the wonderfully dizzy sounding female voices on The Golden Palominos album Visions of Excess.
That 1985 release included Micheal Stipe of R.E.M. who with Straw were featured on one of the album’s highlights “(Kind Of) True”. It would be towards the end of the decade before the two would meet again on Straw’s debut album Surprise.

It was 1989 and Micheal Stipe was as big as any of the Micheals that were big that year. He could be heard on Straws first hit, “The Future Looks Like the 40s”. The lighthearted song was a far cry from the edgy songs she performed with The Golden Palominos.

Surprise was refreshing in that way. Straw who had a free-hearted easy-going style and a very casual appearance would be in sharp contrast to the earthy bitter folk rock singers who would follow in her wake. Surprise was also boosted by the appearance of Daniel Lanios who produced and co wrote “Golden Dreams”. The song was one of the more introspective and personal moments on the album. Lanios distinct guitar ambiance worked perfectly with Straw’s almost country-like delivery. It was also the closing track of an album that was made up mostly of mid to up tempo songs, any one of which could have been on the radio.

But it wasn’t so, even with concessions to more mainstream pop styles like on the rhythmic “Crazy American”. With the success of the single ‘Future 40s (String Of Pearls) on the then new Billboard Modern Rock, Syd Straw’s impact would go beyond the modest success of Surprise.
Soon, Straw she would be joined many other female folk rock singer-song writers, many of whom like Joan Osborune or Sarah McLachlan would eclipse her in notoriety. By the end of the ’90s what started as folk rock influenced had blossomed into a (pretentious) crop talented performers like Natalee Merchant and Tori Amos.

Straw still records although her chart profile is nearly non-existent. More recently she is likely to be seen on various TV shows but sill performs backup on occasion for other artist.


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