ABOVE THE RIM
The Soundtrack (Death Row/Interscope 92359)
Rap producer Dr. Dre has talked about wanting to make his Death Row label the Motown of the '90s, and after listening to the tracks he assembled for the soundtrack album to "Above the Rim," it's easy to believe he'll do it. As expected, there's plenty of killer rap here, from the tough-talking, bass-pumping "Afro Puffs" by the Lady of Rage, to Nate Dogg & Warren G's lazily
compelling "Regulate." But there's more to the music here than just hard-core rap. Al B. Sure! offers a beautifully sung, totally respectful version of Al Green's "Still in Love With You," while SWV sounds funkier than before thanks to the Grandmaster Flash loop beneath "Anything." But be advised -- if you pick up the CD, you'll miss out on 2 Pac's stunningly catchy "Loyal to the Game," which comes only on the cassette.
FAR BEYOND DRIVEN
Pantera (EastWest 92302)
Metalheads usually love to argue about which band is the heaviest, but Pantera's "Far Beyond Driven" will likely put an end to that. Remember that Jackyl album in which they played the blues on a chain saw? There are songs on this album that sound like they were performed with motorcycles instead of guitars. "Slaughtered," in fact, is so heavy with distortion that you may as well forget about figuring out the chords -- you'll be lucky if you can make out the key. Granted, there are some songs, such as the relentlessly slugging "5 Minutes Alone," that actually benefit from the band's ear-shredding guitars and toad-throated vocals. But for the most part, the only thing you'll be driven to is the eject button.
MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS
Eugenius (Atlantic 82562)
If you're the type of listener who expects a song's title and chorus to be roughly identical, then you may be a little frustrated by the current Eugenius album, "Mary Queen of Scots." Though one song boasts the insinuating refrain "Because every single day/You're on my mind," its actual title is "Blue Above the Rooftops." Still, at least the title appears somewhere in the lyrics; that's not the case with "Easter Bunny," which mentions neither church holidays nor rabbits. But by the time Eugenius gets to the song's "Ooh, la la la" chorus, most listeners will be smitten anyway, since "Easter Bunny" -- like most of "Mary Queen of Scots" -- is so blissfully tuneful that it's hard to imagine the alternative rock fan who wouldn't succumb to its charms.
The Brand New Heavies (Delicious Vinyl 5499)
Here in the United States, the golden age of R&B; rhythm 'D sections was the '70s, when such groups as T.S.O.P., Parliament/Funkadelic and Hi Rhythm pumped out memorable grooves almost daily. In Britain, the golden age of R&B; rhythm sections is right now, and no group demonstrates that more vividly than the Brand New Heavies. Cue up any track on "Brother Sister," and what you'll hear is first-class funk, from the lush, Philly Soul sound of "Dream On Dreamer" to the jazzy cadences of "Snake Hips" or "Ten Ton Take." Add the sultry, soulful vocals of N'Dea Davenport, and the Heavies come off as credibly as any oldie.
Music from the Motion Picture (Virgin 39386)
Back before they became the Fab Four, the Beatles were actually a fairly scruffy bunch -- leather-clad rockers playing R&B; and rockabilly for audiences of drunken sailors. So it's not too hard to accept the premise of "Backbeat" that the early Beatles were the punk rockers of their day, and therefore it's OK to remake their early repertoire using punk musicians. But no matter how much instrumental energy is generated by the soundtrack's all-star band -- a group including R.E.M.'s Mike Mills, Nirvana's Dave Grohl and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore -- the fact is that the Beatles could sing, and "Backbeat" vocalist Greg Dulli can't. So unless you want to believe that the early Beatles sounded no better than a mediocre garage band, give this disc a miss.
That Dog (DGC 99992)
Let's face it -- most punk bands wield their instruments like blunt weapons, and sing pretty much the same way. Likewise, those that sing sweetly also tend to play daintily, never wanting to mar their intricate harmonies with raging guitar or crashing drums. But That Dog has no trouble blending luscious, close-harmony vocals with ragged, punk rock instrumental work. In fact, the liveliest moments on "That Dog" come across like a collision between the Andrews Sisters and Bikini Kill -- a delicious combination of creamy vocals and guitar attitude. But there are plenty of lovely low-key moments, too, like the melancholy "You Are Here" or the eerily beautiful "Punk Rock Girl." All told, it's a delightfully adventurous album, unlike anything you're likely to hear this year.