MUSIC BY FAMOUS PEOPLE

part 2 of 2
Emmylou Harris
Wrecking Ball
(Elektra)

Harris has an exquisite voice that's especially moving when contrasted with the right male's: Witness the poignant majesty of her duets with the late Gram Parsons and the coloratura that she contributed to Bob Dylan's 1975 LP Desire. But solo records such as 1975's Pieces of the Sky and 1980's Roses in the Snow, although reliably intelligent and refined, never quite reached the heights of her collaborations; it was as if Harris needed someone with a gift equal to, and sympathetic with, hers to spur her on. And with Daniel Lanois--a producer who uses his mastery of studio techniques to amplify material rather than to hone it to a meaningless commercial sheen--she's found the ideal partner. Lanois, who also contributes his skillful playing on a slew of instruments, is supplemented on Ball by a small but discerning cadre of players, including Malcolm Burn and U2's Larry Mullen Jr.; together, they provide responsive backing that allows Harris to bloom. As usual, she's not terribly involved with tunesmithing: "Deeper Well," which she co-wrote with Lanois and Dave Olney, and "Waltz Across Texas Tonight," imagined with the help of Rodney Crowell, are her only two credits here. But her unerring ability to find compositions that she can enhance has never been more acute. Lucinda Williams's "Sweet Old World" is given a remarkably affecting reading, Jimi Hendrix's "May This Be Love" is transformed into a patient, droney hymn, Anna McGarrigle's "Goin' Back to Harlan" is smokey and genuine, and the title track by Neil Young is eerie and subtly captivating. Better, these qualities deepen over time; the disc is infused with too much feeling to absorb with just a few listens. And a few listens is all it's getting: Because of the rigid programming of today's radio and video outlets, Wrecking Ball is receiving little attention, and that's terribly frustrating. By going out on an artistic limb and refusing to work within the narrow confines of the current marketplace, Harris has made her best album ever--and she deserves to reap the rewards.

The Smashing Pumpkins
Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
(Virgin)

Don't you just want to take a belt to Billy Corgan? A lad with a whiny, Little Lord Fauntleroy voice and an egocentric view of the universe, he's not without talent, but the way he goes about exercising it might make even T. Berry Brazelton change his mind about corporal punishment. More to the point, he's made a major error by trying to carry a double album on his own skinny shoulders. To flourish in the two-disc format an artist must have oversize ambition and a sensibility diverse enough to justify a fan's additional time and attention--and while Corgan sports plenty of the former, he's seriously deficient when it comes to the latter. Musically, the set covers a lot of territory: mopey pianistics ("Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness"), mock-Electric Light Orchestra ornateness ("Tonight, Tonight"), guitar noodling a la Boston ("Here Is No Why"), Beatles-meet-Beach Boys pop ("Cupid De Locke," "Take Me Down") and, in "Porcelina of the Vast Oceans," epic bloat done just the way Kansas aficionados like it. But there's also enough filler to pad out the next three Pumpkins records, and a lyrical invariability that becomes more problematic as the package goes on. Over and over again, Corgan laments his sad, misunderstood life in terms that alternately embrace no-longer-potent punk axioms (like "Living makes me sick/So sick I wish I'd die," from "Jellybelly") and empty psychoanalytical babble (the "Galapogos" lines "I won't deny the pain/I won't deny the change"). The self-pity, which pops up in good songs (the single "Bullet With Butterfly Wings") and bad ("In the Arms of Sleep"), is so overwhelming that the safest course of action is to ignore the words entirely; at least then you can enjoy Corgan's best melodies (like the ones that keep "1979" and the unexpectedly informal "We Only Come Out at Night" going) without the fear of being stopped dead in your tracks by the kind of twaddle favored by the experts on Oprah. As for the rest of Mellon Collie (hate the title)--well, it proves that a little therapy can be a dangerous thing.

The Rolling Stones
Stripped
(Virgin)

In his recent interview with Rolling Stone publisher/Stones groupie Jann Wenner, Mick Jagger conceded that he didn't feel the same enthusiasm for music as he did when he was younger. What Wenner didn't ask next (but should have) was: If that's true, why the hell are you still doing it? Is it only for the dough? Because you don't have any other way to maintain your present lifestyle? And what about your fans? Don't they deserve more than that? On its surface, the answers Stripped provides to these questions aren't pretty. After all, the Stones have put out too many live albums already, and this one isn't brimming with fresh stuff; only one song on it was written after 1973. In fact, the only thing new about the Stones these days is the addition of bassist Darryl Jones, who replaced Bill Wyman. But Mick, Keith, Ron and Charlie clearly don't see the disc as a way to welcome Jones aboard; you'd need an electron microscope to even find the poor bastard's photo on the CD sleeve. Bottom line, this album exists for reasons of commerce, and commerce alone. And yet, thanks to experience, professionalism and other qualities not generally associated with rock and roll, Stripped is a solid listen. The selections are as canny as they are obscure ("Shine a Light" from Exile on Main Street is notably welcome), the sound quality is better than on any other Stones in-concert platter, and the performances are relaxed yet spirited. These guys don't need any more of your money, to be sure, and their decision to follow up a revitalizing tour with a concept as shopworn as this one doesn't speak volumes about their artistic integrity. But damn it, they can still play. It's up to you to decide if that's enough.

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.

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
(Arista)

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
(Capitol)

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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