THE ONE THING
Michael Bolton (Columbia 53567) In the past, Michael Bolton has described his work as being "critic-proof," meaning, of course, that no amount of bad reviews could possibly convince his fans not to like his albums. But what happens when Bolton gets a favorable review -- does his audience run away in horror? We should learn soon, because "The One Thing" is (dare I say it?) easily the best album of Bolton's career. Not only is the writing heartfelt and tuneful, but it's blessed with a wider emotional range that allows Bolton room to croon instead of delivering every chorus at gale-force intensity. And though the album does stumble occasionally -- his gospelized take on Bill Withers' "Lean on Me" is more than a little predictable -- on the whole, it ought to earn him the critical respect he's normally denied.
10,000 Maniacs (Elektra 61569)
Anyone wondering why Natalie Merchant would be so eager to split from 10,000 Maniacs probably hasn't spent much time listening to the group's final recording, "MTV Unplugged." Vocally, the album is surprisingly strong, with Merchant breathing new life into Maniac favorites like "These Are the Days" "Stockton Gala Days," and offering a soaring, impassioned rendition of the Patti Smith hit, "Because the Night." But the instrumental work is stuffy and lugubrious, bogging down otherwise spritely material like "Candy Everybody Wants" and "Don't Talk." By album's end, you may find yourself wondering why Merchant didn't pull the plug on this band sooner.
ACCIDENT IN PARADISE
Sven Vath (Warner Bros. 45442)
Ambient techno rarely repays close listening; it generally works best as background music, suggesting mood without conveying anything specific. Sven Vath's "Accident in Paradise," the other hand, almost demands that the listener pay attention. For one thing, the album flows from song to song so naturally that it's sometimes hard to figure out where one ends and the next begins. Yet Vath manipulates mood with remarkable care, quietly gathering enough momentum in "Ritual of Life" to make "Caravan of Emotions" live up to its title, or effectively dispelling the title tune's rhythmic tension with the burbling quiet of "Drifting Like Whales in the Darkness." Proof positive that techno works as well at album length as it does on singles.
STRAIGHT UP SEWASIDE
Das EFX (EastWest 92265)
Usually, when a hot rap act slips into a sophomore slump, it's because it can't find a way to top the sound of its debut. Not so Das EFX, though. Musically, "Straight Up Sewaside" is every bit as audacious as "Dead Serious" was. Not only are the beats as laid-back and malevolent as before, but the rest of the sound carries an aggressive edge that goes well beyond the first album's mean, muscular sound. Trouble is, neither Dre nor Skoob seem to have any idea what to do once the groove is in place except play tough. So almost everything here, from "Undaground Rappa" to "It'z Lik Dat" gets by more on bland bravado than wise wordplay. And frankly, the only effect that has is to make you look for something else to play.