PLAYLIST

Nine Inch Nails
The Downward Spiral
(Nothing/TVT/Interscope)

There's nothing you can do to make Trent Reznor happy. Give him a million dollars and he'll hate you for trying to buy his affection. Introduce him to the world's most beautiful woman and he'll suspect that she's diseased. Share with him the secret to happiness and he'll put a gun in his mouth just to spite you. This man is bummed--so bummed that the song "Closer" (which features lines such as "My whole existence is flawed") seems positively upbeat compared to the material on the rest of this album. So why does The Downward Spiral work? The explanation isn't in the lyrics, which are so bleak and one-dimensional that, when read from beginning to end, they teeter on the edge of self-parody. No, this disc fascinates thanks to the deranged purity of Reznor's vision and his skill at finding sounds that add depth and impact to the dark thoughts crowding his cranium. Working this time around with producer Flood, Reznor has broadened his musical vocabulary to include insinuating tempos ("Piggy"), complex instrumental textures ("Ruiner") and spacey soundscapes ("A Warm Place"). In addition, he supplements the distorted vocal approach for which he's known with singing that hasn't been so studio-enhanced and (on "Heresy") something close to a falsetto. These new directions don't turn the awesomely misogynistic "Reptile" or the album's title track--a cozy ode to suicide--into anything like easy listening, but they provide enough variety to suggest that Reznor might be able to lighten up without losing his power. Perhaps a cover of "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" is in order.--Michael Roberts

Frank Morgan
Listen to the Dawn
(Antilles)

On his fourth Antilles release, alto saxophonist Morgan speaks through his instrument, producing sonic wisps of joy that call to mind everything from romantic whispers to muffled laughter. His technical expertise is great, yet it's overshadowed by his trademark sound--charming, hazy, emotional. Like last year's You Must Believe in Spring, which was built around beautifully crocheted saxophone/piano duets featuring four of Morgan's favorite keyboardists, Listen is dominated by delicate ballad work. This venture finds Morgan working with a quartet that includes guitarist Kenny Burrell, drummer Grady Tate and bassist Ron Carter. Together these players create musical images that, while lacking clarity and crispness, are more than warm and glowing enough to compensate.--Linda Gruno

Hector Zazou
Sahara Blue
(Tri-Star)

"What is this crap?" asked my extraordinarily tactful wife midway through this CD--and in trying to respond to her question, I realized that I wasn't certain myself. There's no denying that multi-instrumentalist Zazou has come up with something portentous here: a musical version of the works of poet Arthur Rimbaud featuring performers ranging from art-pop provocateurs John Cale, Bill Laswell and Ryuichi Sakamoto to French matinee idol Gerard Depardieu. But this concoction is otherwise so scattered, so jammed with songs that manage to be both intriguing and annoying, that it all but obviates analysis. This much I know: The lead-off track, "I'll Strangle You," featuring vocals by Depardieu and Drecker and beats by Laswell, is very cool; "Lines" and "Sahara Blue" have their moments, thanks to the baby-doll vocals of Barbara Gogan; "Amdyaz," co-written by Zazou and Khaled, sports some interesting stylistic juxtapositions; and most of the other tracks strand several of the greatest players in the world in a new-age morass. Otherwise, I'm at a loss. Sorry, honey.--Roberts

Miki Howard
Miki Sings Billie: A Tribute to Billie Holiday
(Giant)

Howard is a lovely lady with a lovely voice, but her new release reveals her to be either extremely ballsy or indescribably naive. Producing a salute to Holiday is a fine idea, but Howard's decision to perform traditional arrangements of Lady Day's songs without Lady Day's voice results in one of the biggest wastes of recording time that's likely to occur this year. Miki Sings Billie seems aimed only at those looking for an excuse to gripe about the lame quality of music these days.--Gruno

 
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