After Further Review

Putting the season's major releases to the test.

Green Day
nimrod.
(Reprise)

As this recording spun, I couldn't help but think of the Knack--you know, the proto-new wave act that put out an incredibly popular major-label debut (Get the Knack), a much less successful sequel (...but the Little Girls Understand) and a desperate attempt to establish some artistic credibility (Round Trip) that was followed immediately by the group's dissolution. Green Day hasn't broken up yet, so perhaps this model will not prove to be accurate. But nimrod., the trio's third CD for Reprise after one huge record and one stiff, suggests some correlations. In addition to the trio's usual melodic punk, of which "Nice Guys Finish Last" and "Platypus (I Hate You)" are only two examples, Billie Joe, Tre Cool and Mike Dirnt offer a couple of mid-tempo pop turns ("Redundant" and "Worry Rock") that conjure up thoughts of the Brill Building, a deliberate, tremolo-drenched rock instrumental ("Last Ride In"), a de facto tribute to the Who ("Haushinka"), a bit of rock sensitivity ("Walking Alone"), and an honest-to-goodness ballad ("Good Riddance [Time of Your Life]"). Because Billie Joe is a gent who knows a good hook when he hears one, the album has its share of catchy segments, and although his lyrics sometimes mistake drippiness for depth (e.g., "I've got some scattered pictures lying on my bedroom floor/Reminds me of the times we shared/ Makes me wish that you were here," from "Scattered"), he more frequently is pithy and profane: In "The Grouch," about a punk grown old, he barks, "The world owes me/So fuck you" in the full knowledge that the knife cuts both ways. In short, this is not a bad record--but it's all over for Green Day anyhow. Goodbye.

Barbra Streisand
Higher Ground
(Columbia)

In some ways, Streisand has too much skill: Her gifts are so enormous that she thinks she can do anything. She's a fabulous Broadway-style chanteuse with a rare aptitude for comedy; when she's in a light mood, you can literally hear the smile in her voice. But because these pursuits are so easy for her, she's moved away from them in search of new worlds to conquer--and more often than not, she's pulverized them instead. Her most recent long-player finds her eschewing entertainment for soul enrichment: In the liner, she writes, "I believe it is incumbent upon each of us to put positive thoughts out there in the universe, where they can be free to do their good work. The power of prayer is extraordinary. These songs, to me, are like prayers." This ambition sentences listeners to sledding that goes so far beyond heavy that Higher Ground may be the first CD that's actually fattening. Each of the numbers here is a ballad that the various producers, including Arif Mardin and David Foster, weigh down with a symphony's worth of instrumentation. Predictably, Streisand is seldom buried by this accompaniment; she's capable of out-wailing a police siren. There's some interest, therefore, in the way that she mows over every sonic obstacle in her path. (Her last note in "On Holy Ground," which dwarfs the exertions of an oversized gospel choir, is staggering.) But the material is samey and sometimes hackneyed (why, oh why, didn't someone stop her before she cut "You'll Never Walk Alone," the song with which Jerry Lewis ends all of his Labor Day telethons?), and the constant focus on spiritual uplift eventually becomes exhausting. If she were the star of Touched by an Angel, a new title would be in order: Having the Hell Beaten Out of You by an Angel might do nicely. Higher Ground is obviously a deeply felt piece of work, but in the end, it left me with a hankering to hear some show tunes.

Celine Dion
Let's Talk About Love
(550 Music/Epic)

Dion's album shares one track with Streisand's--"Tell Him," in which the up-and-coming songstress and the definitive prima donna pair their pipes. It's not really a fair fight: Streisand's belting has so much body, vigor and character that Dion's big but comparatively flavorless voice is left to flit around her partner's like a piglet unable to muscle her siblings away from mom's nipples at feeding time. Bloodied but unbowed, Dion subsequently challenges Luciano Pavarotti on her own turf in "I Hate You Then I Love You," and although his formidable tenor pounds her trilling into submission, he sounds so ridiculous turning his accent loose on soap-operatic lyrics such as "No matter what you do you drive me crazy" that you can't help snickering. And so it goes on Love, an album in which shlock is given top-drawer treatment. To her credit, Dion tries on several hats, and every so often, one fits her: She does a decent job with "Immortality," a Bee Gees composition on which the brothers Gibb guest. But "Treat Her Like a Lady," a faux-dancehall stomper that she actually tries to rap, is a laugh riot, and her mimicry of soul on "Love Is on the Way" left me hungry for the real thing. As for her rendition of "My Heart Will Go On," subtitled "Love Theme From Titanic," it proved that Dion is not the next Streisand but the next Maureen (The Poseidon Adventure) McGovern. If anyone ever makes another movie about a big boat that sinks, he'd do well to give her a call.

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