On Elton John's 'Duets,' more isn't always better


Elton John (MCA 10926)


They say two heads are better than one. But two singers? Frankly, that depends on the pairing. Take Elton John's "Duets." When he's joined by performers eager to meet him on his own terms -- singers like k.d. lang, for example, whose input helps kick "Teardrops" into high gear, or George Michael, who takes the melodrama of "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" as seriously as John does -- the music sparkles. It's a shame there isn't more of that kind of chemistry here; for the most part, the album's most entertaining moments tend more toward such cast-against-type novelties as John getting down with Don Henley on the Temptations tune "Shakey Ground," or hearing a reprise of "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" with RuPaul in the Kiki Dee role (which, campy as it may be, is still more listenable than Dee's duet on "True Love"). Could it be that two stars aren't always better than one?



D.R.S. (Capitol 81445)

If nothing else, D.R.S. has a good gimmick -- "gangsta harmony," a style that wraps the nasty attitude of gangsta rap in a coating of sweet, soul harmony. But it would take more than pretty singing to mask the ugliness that lies at the heart of "Gangsta Lean." It isn't just the way the title tune uses gently melodic R&B; balladry to sentimentalize street criminals; that may be misguided, but it isn't intrinsically evil. But "Bonnie & Clyde" makes a mockery of romance, while "Make It Rough" is unnervingly explicit in its suggestion that women enjoy sexual abuse. So don't be misled by the seemingly smooth surface here -- this stuff is more noxious than any hard-core rap.


Various Artists (Epic Soundtrax 57682)

It's not unusual for a successful soundtrack to be followed by a second release containing music from the movie that didn't make it onto the first album. But "More Songs for Sleepless Nights" takes another tack entirely -- these are songs that weren't in "Sleepless in Seattle," but which director Nora Ephron thinks we might enjoy anyway. A nervy move, to be sure, but one that's more easily forgiven after hearing the album. Like the "Sleepless" soundtrack, this collection is heavy on old-style, sentimental love songs. Naturally, the vintage recordings included evoke this mood more vividly (particularly Jimmy Durante's tender reading of "I'll See You in My Dreams"), but only a few of the modern renditions ring false (will someone please tell Carly Simon she's not a torch singer?). Not for romantics only. Ever wished that you could go back in time and hear George Gershwin's music the way he played it? If so, then this may be as close as you'll ever get to that time-machine experience. All 12 performances here are from piano rolls Gershwin cut between 1919 and 1933; with the help of some careful tweaking and a little computer technology, producer Max Wilcox and his crew have managed to put enough nuance and inflection into the music that most listeners will find it hard to believe they're listening to a machine. And though "Rhapsody in Blue" is certainly the album's best-known work, the most illuminating moments can be found in lesser-known pieces like "Novelette in Fourths." It's no wonder some bands bristle at being categorized -- not all music fits neatly within a single category. Scan through One Dove's "Morning Dove White" and you'll hear all sorts of influences bubbling through the music, but it's rare that any one style dominates the sound. "White Love," for instance, opens with an eerie blend of heavy guitar and vocal arabesques before diving into a rock-edged dance groove, while "Fallen" uses dub bass and ambient synths to back what is essentially a pop melody. Yet no matter how all-over-the-place One Dove's sound may be, the songs themselves never lack for focus or direction, making "Morning Dove White" a pleasant alternative to pigeon-hole pop.


Marcus Miller (PRA 60201)

Great bass players rarely show off. It isn't that they don't have the chops -- more often than not, what they lack is opportunity, an appropriate place to strut their place. But Marcus Miller has found his, and it's on "The Sun Don't Lie." Alternating between fusion funk and moody jazz, Miller moves easily between solo and accompaniment, filling "Steveland" with lithe, string-popping runs, and deftly negotiating the twists and turns of the Jaco Pastorious tune "Teen Town." But the album's best moments come when Miller plays off his guest stars, whether sparring with Vernon Reid and Miles Davis on "Rampage" or opening a dialogue with Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams on "The King Is Gone."



Djivan Gasparyan (Gyroscope 6604)

On the face of it, Djivan Gasparyan's "Moon Shines at Night" may seem unapproachably exotic. After all, duduk music from Armenia isn't exactly Top-40 fare, is it? Yet the sound Gasparyan gets from his duduk (a wooden oboe closely related to the Persian nay) is astonishingly lovely, conveying both the delicacy of flute music and the voice-like warmth of an alto saxophone. Gasparyan uses little in the way of accompaniment, relying on a simple drone to ground his performances. Yet the music is gorgeous -- filled with sweet, mournful melodies that are haunting, hypnotic and heart-warming. An unforgettably beautiful album.


Psychograss (Windham Hill 11132)

Given the kind of lunacy that occasionally ensues when new acoustic virtuosi get together, seeing the names Darol Anger, Mike Marshall and Tony Trischka attached to an album dubbed "Psychograss" may cause some listeners to approach with caution. Don't worry -- though the music is as free-spirited and wide-ranging as their fans might expect, there's nothing especially psycho about the playing here. In fact, it gets downright tasteful at points, particularly when Marshall slips a few flamenco flourishes into "Little Jaco." Fortunately, Anger's Appalachian fusion licks on "Flanders Rock" and the oddly harmonized "A Real Dragon" add enough edge to make up for


such lapses.