SANDY DILLON East Overshoe (One Little Indian)

Female Tom Waits. There, said it. You'll either be slyly intrigued or stop reading now. And it's an unfortunate, inappropriate way to pigeonhole an artist, especially one who has just produced an album with the broad, cinematic sweep of "East Overshoe", but those three words are going to dog Sandy Dillon like a stray throughout the kind of critical and commercial success she so richly deserves and has so thoroughly earned, and which today's poptones climate is almost guaranteed to deny her. I fear that the global demographic for Sandy Dillon's music consists of people lucky enough to get sent her CDs to review (me, fortunately) and Mojo readers (not me, honestly).

Let's try a few more, just to get them out of the way. Female Captain Beefheart. Female Chuck E Weiss. Marianne Faithful stuck in a service elevator with Bjrk and a trolleyload of bizarre instruments (flat-backed bouzouki, blown bottleneck, dobro, bassoon, saw, violectra, berimbau, jew's harp, tubing, clackamore, nail fiddle).

Some history, courtesy of the excellent press release written by (journalist, I think) Caspar Llewellyn Smith. Dillon, American by birth, classical musician by training, was spotted by former Iggy and Bowie manager Tony DeFries, who helped get her signed to Elektra. She recorded two albums for the label, on which she was assisted by the likes of Man Parrish, Mick Ronson, Dieter Meier and Jaco Pastorius. To this day they remain unreleased. Sandy moved to London, where she and her second husband provided music for computer games and obscure German films. Resurrecting her solo career in the mid-90s, she recorded an album for Bonjour called "Skating", followed three years later by her first One Little Indian release, "Electric Chair". "East Overshoe" brings the resume up to date, pausing to note the tragic death of her husband Steve Bywater shortly after the couple had finished mixing the album.

Enough history. East Overshoe the place is, according to its creator, "that tiny town inside your head that you are always running away from, but dying to get back to". "East Overshoe" the album sounds like a road movie for the ears in a way nothing has since Donald Fagen's more obviously and meticulously designed "Kamakiriad". Herein there are songs about TV evangelists, incest, factory drudgery, set to country music that's probably the stuff of Mary Chapin-Carpenter's worst nightmares. Dillon's singing has the same essence-of-desiccated-crow's-foot edge that Marianne Faithful boasted (if that's the right word) at her fractured, accusatory best, but also the same sweet vulnerability that Tom Waits can muster when he turns on the charm searchlight. And the clattery, wheezing musical backdrop does suggest "Swordfishtrombones" or the last Chuck E Weiss album but with a few inches more melody, or perhaps the twanging elastic-band zeal of the besuited Magic Band on the cover of "Safe As Milk", if they'd been brought up in Nashville rather than California. Not easy listening, of course, but vital and alive, and how much music can really stake a claim to adjectives like those?

Final point. The cover shows a couple caught at the wheel of a black Buick, the licence sticker dated 1950, "Sandy Dillon In East Overshoe" plastered over the hood like a marquee. You wonder what film the shot was filched from, but the people in the car are actually Sandy's parents, photographed by a friend en route to the prom. Truth and illusion, the film of the soundtrack to the film of the life.