Review/Pop; Laurie Anderson Returns

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July 23, 1988, Section 1, Page 11Buy Reprints
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Laurie Anderson has been lying low of late, so her triumphant return to New York concertizing Wednesday night at Alice Tully Hall as part of Lincoln Center's Serious Fun festival was a heartwarming affair.

It was heartwarming because artists, and especially ''serious'' artists who have dallied with the ''fun'' of the commercial music industry, might seem especially prone to burnout. When Ms. Anderson emerged on the downtown performance-art scene in the mid-1970's, her act seemed mesmerizingly fresh; she didn't so much emerge on the scene as create it. But after her pop-music success and big tours and movies and videos, her grave comic monologues and funny voices and little speech-songs and props and film clips had begun to seem just a little coy and predictable.

On Wednesday, Ms. Anderson had changed little in her basic modus operandi. She showed various videos from the last two years. But all of her live material was new - and it was excellent. Furthermore, the very act of withholding herself from the public while she made a new record gave her a rest from us and us a rest from her.

For Ms. Anderson, ''making a record'' is an even more complex process than it is for a high-tech rock band. Her art involves the realization of the potential of complicated, miniaturized, ever-evolving electronic equipment. And for an artist who uses video technology in her act and also makes videos and films that relate to her records, any recording project inevitably entails visual extensions as well.

One appealing aspect of Wednesday's program was that it seemed less rigidly plotted than some of her big tours, and more like an assortment of notions and sketches strung together into a sequence. The feeling of surprise and experimentation was back, even though anything Ms. Anderson does requires precise coordination with unseen technicians. Everything seemed to come off nearly without a hitch.

The two partial innovations in her work concerned her singing and her accompaniment. Her singing seemed new because there was so much of it, and it sounded strong compared with her mostly spoken story-songs of the past or her mousy vocalizations of a couple of years ago.

The accompaniment consisted of herself alone, bereft of a quasi-rock band. Perhaps she will re-enlist a band when she embarks on a proper promotional tour for the new album. But it was fascinating and somehow ingratiating to see her alone on stage, the way she used to be back at the Kitchen and other haunts, mustering up an extraordinary range of vocal and instrumental textures all by herself.

She does this, with richer musical results than ever, through the clever and sophisticated assemblage and programming of ''midi'' equipment - the standardized ''musical instrument digital interface'' system that allows all manner of musical and visual effects to be linked and controlled from a single work-station.

But any technology is heartless unless there's artistry behind it. Ms. Anderson's new material seemed poetically rich and musically compelling. There was a wonderful new song about America and the West, and another strong feminist statement revolving around the color red. Nearly all the funny monologues got laughs in the right places, too.

If Ms. Anderson plays her cards right, she may be able to achieve that delicate double success that so many crossover artists are aiming for these days. If she's lucky, she'll deepen her art at the same time that she broadens her appeal. It would be difficult to think of anyone more likely and deserving.

Ms. Anderson will appear at Tully Hall again next Saturday.