Cindy Lee Berryhill is a folk-rock singer/songwriter who, although one hates to say it, plays better on paper than on record. Those who bemoan the decline of fresh singer/songwriter talent in the pop and rock mainstream have to admire her obvious respect for classic singer/songwriter values, and her determination to present them in a present-day context that doesn't merely ape the sound of the '60s and '70s. She has the desirable liberal and feminist politics, and is conscious of delivering these with a sense of humor. But her vocals and songwriting, not to mention that sense of humor, are not top-flight enough to make her more than a minor performer, if a periodically engaging one.
Berryhill has always identified herself with the alternative rock scene, playing in a punk rock band before going solo, and supporting such acts as Billy Bragg, the Smithereens, the Proclaimers, and X. Her music usually owes as much to folk as rock, though. The San Diegan's 1987 debut, Who's Gonna Save the World?, may be her best simply because it is her most straightforward. Then as now, she was most effective, ironically, at her most basic and serious. Her talking-blues and satirical numbers are not funny or biting enough, and when she adopts a jiving vocal tone, the results are much more awkward than when she just sings.
Berryhill does not lack ambition, moving to New York City in the late '80s to become part of the non-starting "anti-folk" scene. It wouldn't be accurate to say that this hurt her career, as the movement wasn't wide enough to be perceived as a failure. But it didn't do much for her either, although former Patti Smith guitarist (and Suzanne Vega producer) Lenny Kaye produced her second album.
Moving back to Southern California in the 1990s, she went for a much more unusual sound on 1994's Garage Orchestra, enlisting help from musicians who had worked with the San Diego Symphony and the Harry Partch Ensemble. Again, the combination looks more interesting than it sounds, though the ambition is certainly laudable. 1996's Straight Outta Marysville settles between the extremes, going back to a folkier sound while retaining a wider range of instrumentation than the standard folk-rock unit. In 2007, Berryhill returned with Beloved Stranger, her first studio album since the '90s. ~ Richie Unterberger, Rovi