WHAT'S THE 411?
Mary J. Blige (MCA/Uptown 10681)
Even though most new jack swing stars are male, the genre isn't just for guys. Or so says Mary J. Blige, whose "What's the 411?" applies the same rap-meets-R&B; approach that pushed Bobby Brown and Bell Biv DeVoe to the top of the charts. Blige not only knows the moves, but has all the right connections, fleshing out her album with a cast of contributors ranging from rapper Grand Puba to Jodeci mastermind Devante Swing. Even so, Blige doesn't quite play it the way the boys do, meaning that where they're always boasting about how hard their sound is, she has no qualms about showing off her softer side. And that lends the album a sort of quiet charm, from the gentle, jazzy cadences of "Love No Limit," to the smooth, soulful balladry of "You Remind Me."
HEARTS IN ARMOR
Trisha Yearwood (MCA 10641)
Given the brash, Ronstadt-ian quality of her voice, it would be easy to imagine Trisha Yearwood trading her country constituency for a mainstream rock audience. But it won't happen any time soon, at least not if "Hearts in Armor" is any indication. Sure, she does try to have it both ways at times, insisting, for instance, that despite the rock-inflected arrangement leant "Wrong Side of Memphis" she's pure Nashville. But because her deepest loyalty is to the songs themselves, there's an authenticity to her performances that keeps questions of musical style from mattering. And that's why she manages to sound equally at home harmonizing with Emmylou Harris on an old-fashioned weeper like "Woman Walk the Line" as she does when Don Henley adds some Eagle-ish backing vocals to "Walkaway Joe."
AMERICA'S LEAST WANTED
Ugly Kid Joe (Mercury 314 512 571)
Consider it a case of pre-emptive attitude: Rather than risk being made fun of for their musical mediocrity, the members of Ugly Kid Joe seize the initiative by treating both their songs and themselves as one big joke. And it works -- not all the time, but enough to keep "America's Least Wanted" from literally living up to its name. It's best moments are gloriously goofy, with some songs ("G Devil," for instance) sounding like the work of guys who somehow mistook "This Is Spinal Tap" for a how-to film. But you've got to wonder how any group capable a performance as pointedly anti-sentimental as "Everything About You" could turn
around and record such an embarrassingly earnest remake of Harry Chapin's fatherhood tear-jerker, "Cats in the Cradle." Could it be that they really are as dumb as they pretend?
The Zawinul Syndicate (Columbia 46057)
According to most jazz critics, the key to Weather Report's success was the musical relationship that existed between synthesist Joe Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Short, a collaborative chemistry that made their work together far stronger than it would have been individually. Maybe so, but the rich, kaleidoscopic sound of the Zawinul Syndicate's "Lost Tribes" makes a pretty powerful argument to the contrary. Not only are Zawinul's keyboard soundscapes as lush as ever, but he also delivers a surprisingly credible approximation of Shorter's distinctive tone and ethereal lyricism. As a result, tunes like "Rya Paula Freitas" or "Afternoon" are the next best thing to a Weather Report reunion.