Various Artists (Warner Bros. 26974)
At first glance, it's tempting to think of the Olympic-themed "Barcelona Gold" as a sort of pop/rock Dream Team. After all, the artists assembled here are some of the biggest in the business, ranging from Madonna to Rod Stewart, to Keith Sweat, and to Sarah Brightman. Listen to it, though, and the album quickly becomes a lesson in how less becomes more. Trying desperately hard to be everything to everybody, the album has no focus or sense of center; instead, the music ambles aimlessly from rap to R&B; to country to light classical. As such, the few standout tracks -- Madonna's "This Used to Be My Playground," for example, or Marc Cohn's lovely "Old Soldier" -- are marooned in a sea of mediocrity that stretches from such treacly tributes as Randy Travis' "The Heart to Climb the Mountain" to leftovers like En Vogue's "Free Your Mind." Next time, why not the best?
I AIN'T NO PLAYBOY
C.J. Chenier (Slash 26788)
Because the late Clifton Chenier was proclaimed "King of Zydeco" by dint of hard work and artistic ingenuity, it wouldn't be fair for his son, C. J. Chenier, to inherit the throne simply through an accident of birth. Thankfully, C. J. has no intention of taking the easy road, and "I Ain't No Playboy" suggests that his claims to squeezebox supremacy are less a matter of birthright than of sheer talent. Like his dad, C. J. knows how to blend the two-step intensity of traditional Creole dance tunes with the funkier feel of the blues, and the chemistry between the rhythm section and his accordion riffs is nothing short of awesome. But C. J. is also smart enough to know when to add extra color to his sound, and touches like the slide guitar solos on "Sharp Dressed Man" and "Long Hard Road" are what give this album its edge.
RED HOT + DANCE
Various Artists (Columbia 52826)
Taken on the strength of its intentions, it's hard to find fault with a collection like "Red Hot + Dance." A sequel of sorts to last year's AIDS-benefit project "Red Hot + Blue," the "Dance" album offers near-equal array of talent, but falls a bit short on quality. Some of that has to do with the fact that much of the disc is given over club-savvy remixes of old favorites; but as much as might be added by having Brian Eno rework EMF's "Unbelievable" or Frankie Knuckles take on Lisa Stansfield's "Change," far less is gained by having Todd Terry tinker with Sly & the Family Stone's "Thank You (Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin)." As for the original material, the pickings are pretty slim, and despite his title's insistence, George Michael's "Too Funky" simply isn't.
Harvey (Indigo 162-555 001)
Some alternative rock acts make their mark by having a strikingly original sound, while others get over on the strength of their songs. But Britain's P.J. Harvey is the rare performer who manages to do both, and as such, "Dry" is perhaps the most striking debut of the year so far. Part of what makes the album so memorable is the emotional immediacy Harvey gives her performances, filling songs like "Sheela-Na-Gig" and "Joe" with a searing intensity unheard in alternative rock since Throwing Muses' debut album. Amazingly, though, she's able to channel that energy into melodies that are resilient, engaging, and catchy as any pop hit. Taken together, it makes Harvey an artist worth watching, and this an album that demands hearing.