ACROSS THE BORDERLINE
Willie Nelson (Columbia 52752)
Considering that he's already sung alongside everyone from Faron Young to Julio Iglesias, Willie Nelson's duet partners on "Across the Borderline" -- Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon and Sinead O'Connor -- won't raise many eyebrows. But what he does with them might, because for the most part, Nelson tries to meet them on their own turf. It doesn't always work; as well as Nelson's voice blends with O'Connor's, neither gets much out of Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up." Still, Nelson does wonders with Simon's "Graceland," swings admirably with Mose Allison on "I Love the Life I Live," and pulls a powerhouse performance from Dylan on "Heartland." Give him a couple more albums like this, and he'll never have to do a Taco Bell ad again!
James Brown (Scotti Bros. 75274)
As recent James Brown albums go, "Universal James" is a pretty good attempt at modernizing the J. B. sound. With production by C+C Music Factory's Robert Clivilles and David Cole, as well as Soul II Soul's Jazzie B, the sound is contemporary and commercial, right down to the obligatory rap breaks. So why is it so unconvincing? Because as any fan knows, Brown is only at his best when he does it all himself -- plots the arrangements, leads the band, and oversees the production. He takes charge on a couple of tracks here, and if that occasionally results in tripe like "Georgia-Lina" (a song about Brown's love for Georgia and South Carolina), there's enough rhythmic energy in the likes of "Everybody's Got a Thang" and "Make It Funky 2000" to make you wonder why they even bothered with outside production.
Belly (Sire 45187)
As an alumna of Throwing Muses, one of alternative rock's most angst-ridden acts, Tanya Donelly naturally has a weakness for mope-and-moan songs. "Star," the first album from her new band, Belly, definitely has its share of sad ones, as Donelly offers despairing tribute to the emotionally unconnected ("Someone to Die For") and socially untoward ("Untogether"). But Belly's music isn't all gloom and desperation; there are plenty of rockers here, too, balancing the band's sullen side with tuneful, exuberant numbers like "Feed the Tree," "Slow Dog" and the wry, jangly "Gepetto." And the more they cut like that, the easier it will be to stomach Belly.
THE BLISS ALBUM . . ?
P. M. Dawn (Gee Street 314-514-517)
It's easy enough to appreciate the sound of P. M. Dawn. After all, the duo's lush, semi-psychedelic arrangements manage to reap the rhythmic benefits of hip-hop without succumbing to the slam-dunk intensity that makes rap seem so abrasive to non-fans. Yet "The Bliss Album . . .?" is almost too easily listenable, as its air-brushed beats and soul-inflected vocals are so blandly consistent that most of the album blurs into an indistinguishable mass. True, a few tunes do cut through the murk -- most notably "Plastic" and "The Nocturnal Is in the House" -- but for the most part, this is just background music with a hip-hop beat. And what's so blissful about that?