Inner Circle (Big Beat 92261)
No matter how many accommodations Inner Circle might make to the demands of the American R&B; market, somehow the group never seems to shed its reggae roots. That's part of what makes "Bad Boys" so refreshing. It isn't just that the Circle has taken pains to include straight-up reggae numbers like "Looking for a Better Way" alongside pop songs like "Rock with You," although that's part of it. What really keeps the quintet on track is that it understands how reggae and R&B; fit together, whether through the subtle, skanking groove of the title tune, or the distinctly Jamaican harmonies layered throughout "Sweat (A La La La Long)."
ON THE NIGHT
Dire Straits (Warner Bros. 45259)
Rockers generally make concert recordings for one of two reasons: Either the group's stage show is significantly different from its studio approach or it needs to meet the demands of its recording contract. Fortunately, the latter consideration doesn't seem to be the case with Dire Straits. Even though the band has only released two studio albums since its last live album, there's no sense of contractual obligation to the sound of "On the Night." Instead, what comes across is the Straits' often sparkling instrumental interplay, one that makes the most of Mark Knopfler's guitar solos while still leaving room for the rest of the band to shine. Granted, the rockers can be plodding at times, but the band brings an almost incandescent intensity to stately, elegiac songs like "You and Your Friend" and "Private Investigations."
Sheep On Drugs (Smash 162 888 006)
Compared to the sound of Sheep on Drugs, most dance-oriented rock acts seem mindless and trend-addled as, well, sheep on drugs. Cue up any track from the not-quite-ironically-titled "Greatest Hits," and instead of the usual, dreary blend of strummed guitars, sampled dialogue and sequenced dance beats, what you get is a mix of punk attitude and techno electronics, with no hedging on either end. So instead of the pop-friendly compromises served up by EMF and its ilk, Sheep songs like "Uberman," "Track X" and "Acid Test" go for a synth-driven sound that's angular, edgy and energetic enough to leave techno fans ecstatic. So why be just one of the flock?
Joe Sample (Warner Bros. 45209)
How do you distinguish between laid-back jazz and mere background fare? Well, if Joe Sample's "Invitation" is any indication, the difference is all in the details. True, most of the tracks on Sample's album are whisper-quiet and elegantly tuneful, just like the best elevator music. But his material avoids the usual banalities, opting for "Nica's Dream" and "Django" over "Send in the Clowns" and "Feelings," and his improvisations -- though always tastefully understated -- regularly nudge the arrangements away from the melody. And though the result demands little of the listener, neither does it insult his or her intelligence.