MUSIC BY FAMOUS PEOPLE

Passengers
Original Soundtracks 1
(Island)

Press a loaded gun (or a boom box cranking out a Stevie Nicks album) to my head and I'll admit that I was too hard on U2's Achtung Baby at the time of its 1991 release; Bono's monstrous egotism and the essential ostentatiousness of the players' ambitions blinded me to the handful of decent songs on it. Likewise, I didn't give enough of a chance to 1993's Zooropa: A pathetic campaign to be taken seriously by people who couldn't care less was how I dismissed it. Original Soundtracks smacks of the same portentousness, but I have to concede a grudging admiration for the U2 foursome's willingness to delve so single-mindedly into an outside-the-mainstream world. They are aided immeasurably in this mission by producer Brian Eno, a legitimate innovator whose excursions into ambient electronic textures have already proven to be extraordinarily influential (Moby, the Orb, Aphex Twin and more owe him a debt of gratitude). "United Colours," the lead track here, is Eno working on a very high plane, and while it's not obvious what U2 brought to the table, it deserves enough admiration to go around. The occasional presence of Bono's vocals is more of a problem; in several cases, they impose a pop sensibility on compositions that clearly don't need one. (The most notable exceptions to this rule are "Your Blue Room," which resembles a lost track from Eno's Another Green World; "Miss Sarajevo," an efficient seducer up until the conceptually suspect arrival of Luciano Pavarotti; and "Elvis Ate America," which amuses in part because Bono spends the song accurately imitating a horse's ass.) No doubt status-seeking has a lot to do with Original Soundtracks, too: Why else go to such an effort to state that each of these ditties was inspired by a different art film? But at least these guys are trying something different. And at a time when doing so is about as popular as Gary Coleman, that's something.

Melissa Etheridge
Your Little Secret
(Island)

Sure, she's capable of rocking, but what's the big deal about that? Even Kenny Loggins rocks sometimes, and he's the man who gave us "The House on Pooh Corner." So the real question is, does she rock in a unique or distinctive way? And the answer, as usual, is an emphatic "ha!" Practically every cock-strutting cliche is on display here, and just because Etheridge doesn't have the aforementioned appendage doesn't make her banality any less tiresome. She occasionally hints that she's capable of more. For instance, the lyrics to "I Really Like You" ("I'll buy you mangos, baby/Your favorite fruit/I'll shave everything, baby/I'll press my suit") have a humorous ring to them on the printed page. But when Etheridge belts them out in her usual Bob Seger-after-a-Detroit Lions-game manner, every last drop of satire is eviscerated, leaving behind only generic, bar-band residue. The disc's other "I" statements ("I Want to Come Over," "I Could Have Been You") are even dumber, but Etheridge bellows them all in the melodramatic style associated with the original production of Show Boat. So what's Melissa's little secret? That she doesn't have anything of her own to say.

Tony Bennett
Here's to the Ladies
(Columbia)

Here's where the Bennett resurgence starts to falter. Tony's in good voice, and his gentlemanliness is evidenced by his flowery liner-note tributes to the women associated with the songs on this offering (Doris Day is "gifted in a way that makes everything she does work. She's a Hollywood producer's dream; she has beauty, she's a great actress, a wonderful singer--putting it simply, she has it all!"). But the selections--especially "People" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"--suffer from obviousness, and the light production touch that's made the last couple Bennett recordings percolate in such a dry and elegant manner has been ditched to a great extent. Bennett's longtime accompanists, the Ralph Sharon Trio, are on-site, but their work is often swathed in obtrusive string arrangements ("My Love Went to London") or pummeled by unnecessary brass ("Tangerine"). Ladies spotlights some stellar performances, including a spare, swinging run-through of "I Got Rhythm," but the marvelous consistency that's marked the Nineties Tony is absent--and missed. First the Super Bowl halftime show, and now this.

Alice in Chains
Alice in Chains
(Columbia)

Five years after the grunge revolution, the post-Seattle sound has become so all-encompassing and so stereotype-ridden that the average palooka can be forgiven for turning tail at the first sound of a distorted guitar or a depressive lead singer. But that doesn't mean there's no interesting work being done in this sub-genre anymore--as Alice in Chains argues. Of course, the reason that this CD works has everything to do with the bandmembers' refusal to settle for regurgitating the elements that made the sound identifiable in the first place. Sure, big Seventies-rock riffs remain a staple, but they aren't the only thing going on--and when they predominate, as on "Head Creeps" and the Black Sabbathy "Sludge Factory," the tunes suffer for it. More provocative, then, are "Grind," "Brush Away" and "Shame in You," during which the players' vocal harmonies (they're getting more heavily stylized all the time) receive plenty of elbow room. "Heaven Beside You" exemplifies this sense of adventure; at times, it suggests a dour, neo-psychedelic variation on the Mamas and the Papas. The dim reception that greeted Layne Staley's misguided side project, Mad Season, hasn't entirely rid him of knee-jerk nihilism, and "Nothin' Song," in which Staley palavers insipidly about the difficulties of writing the very ditty he's singing, is a gaffe. But Alice's predisposition to fiddle with its formula bodes well for the future. These guys may slip their chains yet.

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