XTC (Geffen 24474)
Taken purely as a matter of craft, the songs on XTC's "Nonsuch" seem wonderfully ingenious, with clever, catchy choruses, artful arrangements and inventive, interlocking counter-melodies. Trouble is, ingenuity for its own sake isn't all that interesting, and the lads in XTC seem incapable of coming up with an alternative. Thus, the album alternates between hollow-but-pretty constructions like "Then She Appeared" or "My Bird Performs," and boorishly obvious message songs like "The Smartest Monkeys" or "War Dance," with little middle ground beyond the pointed and tuneful "Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead."
M.C. Brains (Motown 3746363424)
M.C. Brains may be the name above the title, but the real genius behind "Lovers Lane" is executive producer Michael "Biv" Bivins of Bell Biv DeVoe. After all, what makes raps like "Oochie Coochie" or "Brains Goin' Cra-Ze" sizzle isn't the rhyming, but the way the production wraps the rapper's soft-core sentiment in a hooky, hardcore sound. And even though Brains never comes across as tough as he'd like, Bivins' fondness for cross-pollination -- like bringing in another of his acts, Boyz II Men, to put some R&B; flavor in the mix -- assures that the album's sound is always as savvy as it is slick.
Cruel Shoes (Rendezvous/RCA 61104)
John Palumbo's acrid wit and ambling melodies have been likened to Steely Dan ever since his days with Crack the Sky, but that resemblance has never been stronger than it is with his new band, Cruel Shoes. Cue up any song on the group's debut, "Cruel Shoes," and what you'll hear could pass for an "Aja" outtake, from the electric piano vamp of "Cooltown" to the "Babylon Sisters" groove of "Baltimore Joe." That's not to say Palumbo is without ideas of his own, for the melodic twists of "My Turn" are wholly original, while "Where Are the Angels" adds some distinctive twists to a well-worn theme. But anyone who warmed to the sound of Steely Dan will surely feel comfortable with Cruel Shoes.
Loreena McKennitt (Warner Bros. 26880)
If all Loreena McKennitt had meant to do was apply a new age approach to Celtic traditional music, odds are she would have ended up with a none-too-interesting update on what Alan Stivell did 20 years ago. But "The Visit" goes well beyond that, mixing in elements of jazz, folk-rock and Indian classical music for a sound that's astonishingly wide-ranging. And though there are moments when McKennitt's music recalls Kate Bush ("All Souls Night"), Enya ("Between the Shadows") and even Tom Waits (a stunning version of "Greensleeves"), for the most part "The Visit" is unlike anything else on the shelves today.