BEYOND THE SEASON
Garth Brooks (Liberty 98742)
Given its late-summer release, Garth Brooks fans might want to take the title of his newest album, "Beyond the Season," a little more literally than usual. Why? Because the season Brooks has in mind is Christmas, and each of the 11 songs is focused on Dec. 25. To his credit, he treats each of them as country fare, meaning that there's a boisterous, honky-tonk beat behind the Santa-centered "The Old Man's Back in Town," "White Christmas" coasts in on a jazzy, western-swing arrangement, and "The Gift" is given a lovely Tex-Mex ballad treatment. But unless you're a dedicated Brooks-aholic, odds are that you're going to feel fairly silly listening to "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" or "Silent Night" this early in the season.
Eric Clapton (Reprise 45024)
Most "unplugged" albums treat their all-acoustic instrumentation as a gimmick, offering little more than unamplified versions of the performer's biggest hits. Eric Clapton's "Unplugged" is a horse of a different color, however, for not only is the bulk of the album given over to old blues tunes, but the few familiar numbers are given arrangements that verge on re-invention. "Layla," for example, is remade as a jazzy shuffle, while "Old Love" seems both darker and more resonant in its acoustic setting. And even though the most obvious pop hit is probably his wonderfully tender reading of "Tears in Heaven," there's no denying the appeal of oldies like Robert Johnson's "Walkin' Blues" or Jesse Fuller's "San Francisco Bay Blues."
Linda Ronstadt (Elektra 61383)
After her albums of swing-era standards and mariachi classics, Linda Ronstadt's decision to make an album of mambo music might be seen as just another fling with a foreign (at least to rock fans) pop style. Yet "Frenesi" is, in many ways, her most satisfying effort in years, blessed with some of her most assured singing to date and boasting almost as much pop appeal as her last rock album. Granted, everything is sung in Spanish, and it helps if you have a weakness for Latin percussion. But the romantic anguish of "Verdad Amarga" needs no translation, and it's hard to imagine the listener who wouldn't be impressed by the passion and dramatic range of "Mentira Salome."
Utah Saints (London 869 843)
Although techno's appeal quite clearly lies with the aggressive intensity of its electronic pulse, the fact that most techno singles rarely offer anything beyond those synth-driven beats has kept the style from having much impact on the pop charts. And while the title tune from the Utah Saints' album "Something Good" may not change that, it's certainly a step in the right direction. Built around a sample from the Kate Bush single "Cloudbusting," the song has enough melodic focus to make its repetitious rhythms unexpectedly insinuating. But apart from the equally-enticing "Anything Can Happen," little else on this album is as catchy or charming.