Xscape finds pop-packaged perfection



Xscape (So So Def/Columbia 57107) Critics may give points for originality, but producers get points -- percentage points, that is -- for success. So even though it's easy to write Xscape off as being equal parts En Vogue and T.L.C., it's hard to hold any of that against studio mastermind Jermaine Dupri. After all, his job on "Hummin' Comin' At 'Cha" was to fashion the perfect pop package for Xscape, and he definitely delivered the goods. For one thing, the melodies he hands this harmonizing foursome are strong enough to leave any listener humming along, but he's also smart enough to leave room for rap and showy solo passages. And though his taste in samples is a tad old-school (Trouble Funk's "Pump Me Up" on "Pumpin'," Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle" on "Let Me Know"), he deploys them with enough intelligence to keep the music funky and fresh.


Rush (Atlantic Anthem 82528)

Some bands create trends, and others follow them. But Rush seems to ignore the process entirely, making the music it wants regardless of the latest trends or fashion. So some songs on "Counterparts" come on hard and crunchy (the self-sufficiency anthem "Stick It Out," for example), some are jazzily adventurous (like the funky instrumental "Leave That Thing Alone"), and some have the semi-acoustic sheen of singer/songwriter material (as on the gay tolerance tune "Nobody's Hero"). In fact, the album's only real constants are Geddy Lee's voice -- which has grown wonderfully expressive over the years -- and the virtuosic precision of the playing. But that's all most Rush fans want, anyway.

2 1/2 YEARS

Elvis Costello (Rykodisc 90271/74)

Thirty months is not an especially long period in a musician's career, but it was time enough for Elvis Costello to establish himself as one of the brightest talents of the English new wave. And "2 1/2 Years" shows why. At the heart of this 4-CD set are the albums that earned him his reputation as one of rock's most wittily vitriolic tunesmiths -- "My Aim Is True," "This Year's Model" and "Armed Forces." But this set sweetens the package by augmenting each album with non-LP singles from the same period, so "Radio Sweetheart" is tacked onto "My Aim Is True" and "Big Tears" accompanies "This Year's Model." Add in the bonus album "Live at El Mocambo," Roger Bechirian's crystal-clear remastering and all the original album art, and "2 1/2 Years" seems the bargain of a lifetime.


Russell Malone (Columbia 53912)

For years now, the phrase "young jazz guitarist" has conjured images of fleet-fingered fusion players, whose blistering leads dazzled rock-schooled listeners but left old-style jazz fans cold. But Russell Malone may yet put that cliche to rest. Even though he's youthful enough to have grown up on John McLaughlin and Al DiMeola, the way he plays is enough to make you think the Mahavishnu Orchestra never happened. Malone's sound is round and warm, and his phrasing recalls the rich, blues-tinged work of Wes Montgomery or Grant Green (though, as the breakneck bop tune "Jingles" makes plain, he also has the speed and dexterity of Joe Pass). So even when he turns to a contemporary pop tune like "I Say a Little Prayer for You," the music he makes is solidly traditional, and utterly delightful.

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