The Pretenders
The Isle of View
(Warner Bros.)

This is where old punks go to die. Chrissie Hynde, a smart-mouthed cultural bomb-thrower not long ago, has been mellowing of late, but even those who've paid attention since the early Eighties will be taken aback by The Isle of View's tacit admission that loud guitars, heavy beats and abrasive profanities are a part of her past. Of course, ballads and mid-tempo pieces have held prominent places in her oeuvre since the very beginning, as her inclusion of "Brass in Pocket" and "I Go to Sleep" demonstrates. But where they were once palate cleansers, they now constitute the entire meal; even the new version of "The Phone Call," originally so creepy and passionate, is enervated, its sharp edges flattened out and painted over. Hence, the album as a whole winds up presenting only one side of Hynde--the least interesting, most conventional side. She's still a performer capable of big things, and there's no denying that these live, Triple A-radio-friendly reworkings of her previous efforts are slick and tasteful. But the music of Natalie Merchant is slick and tasteful, too. The old Hynde would have kicked the crap out of Merchant, but these days the pair are sisters under the skin.

Various Artists
Waiting to Exhale: Original Soundtrack Album

Although his name is at the bottom of this CD's cover, Kenneth Edmonds, aka Babyface, is Waiting to Exhale's main man; his smooth, deceptively casual take on modern-soul verities dominates the songs, all of which flowed from his pen. This authorial homogeneity certainly has its advantages, especially when it comes to Whitney Houston, the woman whose upcoming movie this compilation is intended to boost. Houston has a tendency to try to knock down buildings with her voice, but Babyface keeps her bridled throughout the entirety of "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)" and the first halves of both "Why Does It Hurt So Bad" and "Count On Me," the latter a duet with CeCe Winans. His ability to rein in the terrifying Patti LaBelle is also appreciated--her "My Love, Sweet Love" is actually listenable until its conclusion, when her trademark screaming slices up the subtle backing track like an out-of-control chain saw going through silk boxer shorts. But the sameness of the tempos and the aural parity he draws from artists as disparate as TLC, Chaka Khan, Aretha Franklin and Brandy eventually drags Exhale down. The platter is very pretty and precise, but the cautiousness of Babyface's approach also makes it surprisingly numbing. Wake me when it's over.

Frank Sinatra
Sinatra 80th: All the Best

When I first received this two-CD package, my heart hit the floor. You see, I'd caught a commercial teasing a television special in honor of Sinatra's birthday--so naturally I assumed that Sinatra 80th would consist of the Chairman's signature songs as performed by, say, Hootie & the Blowfish. But then, something wonderful happened: I looked inside the jewel box and realized that the familiar ditties here are sung by Sinatra--not the 80-year-old Sinatra, but the Sinatra of the Fifties and early Sixties. Hell, even the electronic duet on "The Christmas Song" with Nat "King" Cole (who's been doing a lot of singing since he died) involves young Frank, not the doddering, discombobulated, hairpiece-wearing one on display now. 'Tis the season to be jolly indeed.

end of part 2

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