Ray Charles (Warner Bros. 26735)
Everybody knows Ray Charles can sing. In fact, he can pull more out of a melody than almost any pop star alive. But even he can only do so much, a point that's driven home with unfortunate clarity on "My World." This isn't a bad album, mind; unlike the low-budget "Would You Believe?," Charles surrounded by top-flight players on almost every track, and the material takes him from bass-pumping funk ("Let Me Take Over") to straight up spirituals ("So Help Me God"). But what Brother Ray needs first and foremost are songs, and when you hear how much he makes of a classic Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years," it suddenly becomes obvious how cut-rate the rest of the writing here is.
TILL DEATH DO US PART
Geto Boys (Rap-a-Lot/Priority 57191)
They don't make gangsta rappers like the Geto Boys anymore. (( Where other criminal-minded rap acts are all tough talk and empty posturing, the Geto Boys put real menace in their music. It isn't simply that the songs on "Till Death Do Us Part" are soaked in sex and violence; what keeps these raps a cut above the rest is that there's usually a message behind the mayhem. "Street Life," for example, makes a frighteningly strong connection between urban violence and ghetto poverty, while the blood-soaked "Crooked Officer" says more about the price of injustice than the evening news ever does. In other words, this stuff is real -- and reality can be scarier than anything a rap group ever made up.
OTHER VOICES, OTHER ROOMS
Nanci Griffith (Elektra 61464)
No doubt about it -- Nanci Griffith has excellent taste in writing. Not only has she named her new album after Truman Capote's first novel, but she's filled "Other Voices, Other Rooms" with first-rate songwriting as well. Unfortunately, none of it is hers, and though her liner notes describe this album of cover tunes as "the dream of a lifetime," she may have been better off leaving it a dream deferred. Griffith can be compelling, but she's not always the most convincing singer, so while she works wonders with some songs -- "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness" is powerfully moving, and her version of "Night Rider's Lament" rivals Garth Brooks' -- others are undone by her small voice and quirky phrasing. On the whole, the album could have used some "Other Voices" of its own.
LIVING IN OBLIVION
Various Artists (EMI 81417)
Is it too early for '80s nostalgia yet? Obviously someone doesn't think so, or else there wouldn't be "Living in Oblivion: The '80s Greatest Hits, Vol. 1." Granted, this album isn't exactly strict about its chronology, as three of the 18 songs date from the Carter administration, but overall the sound is pretty much as you'd remember it, full of pulsing synths and pouty voices. So how come it all sounds so dated? Chalk some of it up to the synths; today's electronics are far more impressive than the cheesy keyboards littering Kim Wilde's otherwise admirable "Kids in America." But lay most of the blame on the fact that groups like Re-Flex ("The Politics of Dancing"), Talk Talk ("Talk Talk") or Kajagoogoo ("Too Shy") relied more on mousse than musicality.