The Major and the Minor

A roundup of big-name recordings that live up (or down) to expectations.

Unfortunately, the promise of "God Give Me Strength," a first-rate song Costello and Bacharach penned for the soundtrack of the semi-flop Grace of My Heart, is not fulfilled by Painted From Memory, an album that's as pretentious as it is disappointing. Bacharach at his best gives pop a patina of seriousness, but here Costello reverses the equation, emphasizing Significance at the expense of hooks. Not one of the tunes is up-tempo, and the medium-speed introductions to "Tears at the Birthday Party" and "Such Unlikely Lovers" slow down considerably before long. Worse, the arrangements mistake lounge instrumentation for suavity, thereby serving as an uncomfortable reminder of Bacharach's "Arthur's Theme" period. And while Costello tries to create lyrics that are less verbose than those for which he's known, the strain is as obvious as when he's puckering his sphincter in an effort to hit notes that are just beyond his natural range. Bacharach's ability to make a hackneyed melody seem tonier than it should hasn't left him yet, but rummaging around for such moments on this disc is far more trouble than it's worth.

The emotionality of Plush's More You Becomes You only accentuates the shortcomings of Painted From Memory. Liam Hayes, the vocalist/pianist/ organist who's the sole member of this one-man band, has a taste for all things Bacharachian, but he knows better than to slather the songs in muted cornets, background warbling or other studio goop. The title cut, "Virginia," "(See it in the) Early Morning" and a two-partner dubbed "The Party" are lo-fi in the extreme, putting no barriers between Hayes's unaffected voice and the people at whom he's directing it. The words he sings may not seem all that profound on the page (e.g., "I feel I'm ignoring/My time in the world," from "Soaring and Boring"), but the relaxed intensity he pours into them doesn't lack for juice. More You Becomes You is an irresistibly morose valentine from an artist driven by a passion that Costello can no longer even simulate.

Marilyn Manson
Mechanical Animals

Manson has never shied away from appropriating other people's shticks, but this CD is his most audacious act of thievery yet. The cover shot, in which Marilyn appears as a nude, paler-than-pale anthropoid, is such a David Bowie ripoff that I assumed even he wouldn't attempt to match it musically. How wrong I was: Mechanical Animals is so obviously Manson's distillation of Bowie's aliens-and-outer-space years that the former Ziggy Stardust deserves royalty payments. Maybe Marilyn figured that since Bowie isn't using this particular persona anymore, it was available.

From the first verse of the album-opening "Great Big White World" ("In space the stars are no nearer.../And I dreamed I was a spaceman") to "The Speed of Pain," which begins with a strummed acoustic guitar that will prompt practically anyone born during the last five decades to start singing "Ground control to Major Tom," Manson rifles through the Bowie catalogue looking for usable material, and he finds plenty. "Posthuman," "New Model No. 15" and "The Last Day on Earth" aren't titles that were chosen at random, and in "Dissociative," he sings, "I don't want to just float in fear/A dead astronaut in space" like the reverential acolyte he still is. Thank goodness, then, that Manson is a talented mimic who knows that subtlety can sometimes get in the way of pop delight. "The Dope Show" saves some dull verses with a chorus that could have come from the Sweet, "Rock Is Dead" contradicts itself with a guitar figure that works as well now as it did back in the Seventies, and "I Don't Like the Drugs (but the Drugs Like Me)" is a hip-shaking, boa-wearing, boys-with-lipstick throwback that still dresses up fine. "Mechanical Animals" is even better: Manson sounds like Aladdin Sane when he's mouthing witty puns such as "you were phenobarbidoll/A manniqueen of depression."

None of this means that Manson has come into his own as an artist, or even as a provocateur; his supposedly upsetting "User Friendly" declaration--"I'm not in love, but I'm gonna fuck you/'Til somebody better comes along"--could be an outtake from The Wall that Roger Waters prudently left on the cutting-room floor. Marilyn has never had much to say, and that's not going to change. But the man's a survivor. It'll take more than a shortage of ideas to kill his career. Because he can always swipe someone else's.

Dru Hill
Enter the Dru

Unlike most of the other contestants in the smooth soul sweepstakes, the members of Dru Hill don't look like urban Eddie Haskells: Frontman Sisqo wears his Afro dyed bright white, and he and his comrades favor love-god threads that practically demand worship from the female portion of their congregation. But the latest disc's cover shot is brasher than the music beneath it. Enter the Dru aims to appeal equally to macho men and the ladies in the house, and it succeeds about half the time. But in the end, there's too much commercial calculation and not nearly enough get-down.

Even hardcore rappers are subsumed in Enter the Dru's sweeping sensuality. "This Is What We Do," a partial reshaping of Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It," features Method Man, but this Wu-Tang Clan vet's drop-your-drawers rap ("Throw your panties over there/You won't need those") barely manages to poke its engorged head above the surface sheen of Dru Hill's trademark harmonies. That's not always a bad thing: "How Deep Is Your Love," a jumbo smash originally heard on the Rush Hour soundtrack, is four minutes of velvety freakiness, and both "Holding You" and "I'm Wondering" are sincere without inducing sugar shock. But "These Are the Times," which was churned out by the Babyface factory, and "What Do I Do With the Love," scribbled by Mistress of Shlock Diane Warren and produced by the evil David Foster, is as soupy as anything from the Boyz II Men kitchen. Folks brave enough to listen to them back to back had better have a hypodermic filled with insulin handy just in case.

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