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After Further Review

Putting the season's major releases to the test.

Mariah Carey
Butterfly
(Columbia)

Like it or not, you've got to give Carey some props: It would have been easy for her to do a Whitney Houston and drift off toward the middle of the road, but she's made an effort to remain contemporary. Too bad her choice of collaborators is a bit suspect. She practically hands "Honey" over to the ubiquitous Sean Combs, and on "Breakdown," rappers Wish Bone and Krayzie Bone, under Combs's direction, don't exactly lift the tune to another level. But more problematic is Carey's insistence upon tonal smoothness. Although she's got a voice that can cut glass, she generally keeps it under wraps on Butterfly, choosing instead to coo her leads or quaver in the background as harmony singers handle the hooks. Furthermore, the instruments and the vocal contributors are layered so thickly that the songs themselves seem like glass figures packed in an oversized shipping crate jammed with Styrofoam. It's all quite comely, and sometimes it's more than that: "The Roof" sports a penetrating groove that pulls you deeper and deeper into one of Carey's typically lush lyrics ("Every time I feel the need I envision you caressing me/And go back in time/To relive the splendor of you and I/On the rooftop that rainy night"), and "Babydoll" is a lavish exploration of horniness. But most of these muted lovefests are indistinguishable from one another, ultimately causing the album to sink into a pile of fluff. Like Babyface, Carey has rounded off every edge of her music in order to make it utterly unobjectionable. If only she'd stopped before there was nothing left.

Bush
Deconstructed
(Trauma)

It's rather poignant how desperate Gavin Rossdale and his minions are for respect. For the act's previous package, Razorblade Suitcase, they hired producer Steve Albini, a man who even Kurt Cobain felt was too extreme at times. Now, on Deconstructed, the lads have lined up every hotshot studio jockey on the A-list to make their iffy tunes as current as trip-hop. Since the first step toward a strong mix is strong material, this task was a difficult one, but a few dial-twisters were able to come up with some intriguing concoctions anyhow--especially those who took the quite logical step of tossing out as much of the songs as they could. "Swallowed" becomes a moody but still danceable sonic slab after being overhauled by Goldie and Rob Playford; "In a Lonely Place" is infused with creepiness by Tricky; and "Everything Zen" is completely subsumed in beats and beeps cooked up by Derek DeLarge. (A second, far-less drastic variation on "Everything Zen," refurbished by Greg Brimson and Pete Coyte, leads off the disc.) But despite such exertions, this undertaking remains a waste of time--the sort of thing record companies put out for no other reason than to assuage bruised egos. Why? Because people who actually like Bush are apt to hate the changes, and people who don't like Bush will see Deconstructed as the vanity project it is and leave it on the store shelves. Coming soon to a cut-out bin near you.

The Replacements
All for Nothing/Nothing for All
(Reprise)

The Replacements' story is a cautionary tale about believing your own press. The band, led by master songwriter Paul Westerberg, was formed in 1980, and an argument can be made that its first releases (1981's Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash and the 1982 EP The Replacements Stink) are too silly--although I wouldn't make it myself. By the time of 1983's Hootenany, however, Westerberg had found a way to write serious songs in the context of drunken, primordial rock and roll. What followed were three exceptional albums--1984's Let It Be (the peak, in my opinion), 1985's Tim and 1987's Pleased to Meet Me--and oodles of mainstream critical accolades that started coloring Westerberg's work. He began to moan in interviews about feeling hemmed in by the band's slatternly reputation and told the public about his love for the catalogue of Joni Mitchell. These were danger signs, but Westerberg ignored them, and as a result, 1989's Don't Tell a Soul and the 1990 swan song All Shook Down were severe disappointments--not bad, really, but hollow, studied, and wholly lacking in the spontaneity that had characterized the Replacements in their prime. This progression can be traced on both disc one, a compilation of the quartet's studio creations beginning in 1985, and disc two, a roundup of unreleased oddities. The first half of All for Nothing contains only one truly raucous Replacements moment ("Bastards of Young") and a fistful of more sensitive numbers of the sort that first got journalists' attention ("Here Comes a Regular," "Skyway") before segueing into the "respectable" tracks that signaled the beginning of the end. Similarly, Nothing for All kicks off promisingly with the likes of "Beer for Breakfast" ("All I want to eat is those barbecue chips!"), "Till We're Nude," "Jungle Rock" and the Chris Mars declaration "All He Wants to Do Is Fish." But following a wonderful demolition of Disney's "Cruella DeVille," Westerberg steps to the fore with "We Know the Night," "Portland" and other literary excursions that are easier to respect than they are to enjoy. "Like a Rolling Pin," based on Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," is the last truly sloppy moment, but its pedigree shows how much Westerberg had changed: In the old days, he would cover KISS. How much you enjoy this set, then, will depend on which Westerberg you like best. Fans of Westerberg-the-misunderstood-artist will find plenty to love, but aficionados of the Replacements' indie-smartass period will probably wind up feeling depressed. I know I did.

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