FEVER FOR DA FLAVOR
H-Town (Luke 126)
With new-jack harmony acts springing up like weeds these days, it takes more than a good beat and a bad attitude to make a dent in the charts. What it takes is balance, the right mix between love lyrics and street smarts, between vocal agility and rhythmic insistence. And that's the balance H-Town maintains through most of "Fever for da Flavor." True, these Houstonians do occasionally indulge in vocal overkill, particularly on salacious slow jams like "Knockin' Da Boots." But they never lose the groove, even when they're showing off, and that -- combined with the in-your-face intensity of songs like "Sex Me" and "Can't Fade the H" -- makes this a flavor to savor.
SYMPHONY OR DAMN
Terence Trent D'Arby (Columbia 53616)
There are many ways in which too much ambition can be a pop star's undoing. Plan to take over the charts, and you're seen as arrogant and calculating; pursue a musically demanding course, and you're written off as solipsistic and self-obsessed. Just ask Terence Trent D'Arby -- he's fallen victim to both sides of the trap. But "Symphony or Damn" more than makes up for those early mistakes. Although the music is relentlessly inventive, full to bursting with ingenious constructions and exotic, ear-catching sounds, D'Arby still delivers the goods commercially, applying his musical ingenuity to an almost irresistible sense of melody. As a result, the album's best songs -- "She Kissed Me," "Penelope Please," "Do You Love Me Like You Say?" -- sound like smash hits from the very first.
Various Artists (Angel 64769)
As any educated head-banger knows, heavy metal musicians have always had a secret fondness for longhair music. Whether it's Metallica cribbing from Holst's "Mars, The Bringer of War" or Yngwie Malmsteen pretending he's Paganini, nods to classical music can be found throughout the heavy metal canon. So it makes sense that the classical world would try to cash in -- but is "Heavy Classix" really the way to do it? Some of the selections are dead on the mark, particularly Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyrie" and the excerpts from Mussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition" (hello, ELP fans!). But others, like Chabrier's "Espana" or the "Hungarian March" from Berlioz's "The Damnation of Faust," seem to be clutching at straws. Are they pretty? Sure. Heavy? No way, dude.
RID OF ME
P.J. Harvey (Island 314 514 696)
No matter how much the music industry might trumpet the commercial potential of college rock, the fact is that not all alternative acts want to cross over. Take P.J. Harvey, for example. Although the trio's debut, "Dry," won raves for the uncluttered eloquence of Polly Harvey's songwriting, "Rid of Me" moves away from simple melodic expression to emphasize the churning, Beefheartian clangor of the band's instrumental interplay. Granted, there's something to be said for letting the band strut its stuff this way, particularly when it results in the 11/8 blues of "Missed" or the wonderfully controlled free fall of "50Ft Queenie." But by making the listener work to appreciate these songs, Harvey virtually guarantees she'll get the cult crowd she wants instead of the mass audience she deserves.