Natalie Merchant (Elektra 61745) Although it's common to assume that lead singers leavbands more for ego gratification than for musical reasons, that doesn't seem to be the case with former 10,000 Maniacs frontwoman Natalie Merchant. It's not as if her solo debut, "Tigerlily," comes across like a Maniacs album made with studio ringers. For one thing, Merchant is working with a much wider range of musical styles than her old group could comfortably have accommodated -- from the dry, blues-inflected groove of "San Andreas Fault" to the swinging, Afro-Cuban pulse that grounds "Carnival." But there's also something intensely personal about her work here -- a sense of focus and persona that makes it hard to imagine how these songs could be presented as anything but the work of one person. Fortunately, that works to her advantage, allowing Merchant to convey more passion and personality through her music than she has in the past, adding enough wit to "Jealousy" to make its jilted confessional seem that much more credible, and expressing such empathy with the aged protagonist to "Beloved Wife" that it's almost hard to believe she isn't singing from personal experience.
Enya (Reprise 45681)
Before rejoicing over the fact that, at long last, there's a new Enya album on the shelves, you may want to take a close look at the copyright information printed on the back of "The Celts." Written and recorded almost a decade ago for the BBC-TV series "The Celts," the album was originally released in 1987 under the title "Enya." Having preceded the enormous and unexpected success of "Watermark," the album went almost unnoticed at the time, and for good reason. Although many of Enya's strengths are in evidence here, from the wispy, ethereal vocals of "To Go Beyond" to musty, atmospheric instrumentals like "Portrait (Out of the Blue)," most appear in semi-embryonic state, without the polish and maturity that makes her later work so memorable. Moreover, the dated synthesizer sound she applies to "Boadicea" and the title tune makes the album seem far more dated than it should.
Bon Jovi (Mercury 314 528 181)
If ever a band seemed doomed to live its creative life in some eternal version of the '80s, it's Bon Jovi. Between the crank-it-up excess of Richie Sambora's guitars and the arena-rock melodrama of Jon Bon Jovi's singing, you'd think the band hasn't listened to the radio in almost a decade. But in a strange way, that's part of the charm to "These Days." By playing it as if the whole alterna-rock movement never happened, the band is free to let its larger-than-life rockers stand or fall on their own terms. And, amazingly enough, the majority have sturdy legs. After all, the band isn't just sticking to principles here; with more than a decade of recording behind it now, the group has pretty much perfected its approach to rock 'n' roll. Not every listener is going to love the hyperbole -- both romantic and melodic -- that fuels "This Ain't a Love Song," but anyone with a taste for over-the-top pop will doubtless swoon over the song's dramatic sweep and wholehearted sentimentality. As for the ham-fisted irony of "Hey God" or the broad-brush heartbreak presented in "Lie To Me," put it this way -- if you liked Bon Jovi back then, you ought to love them now.
CELEBRATION ON THE PLANET MARS
The Beau Hunks Sextette (Koch 7909)
A surprising number of musicians grew up listening to cartoons. It wasn't just the funny voices and wacky sound effects that entranced them; it was also the music, as composers like Raymond Scott created a sonic universe every bit as singular and imaginative as the visuals they accompanied. Unfortunately, the sound quality of those cartoon soundtracks leaves much to be desired by contemporary standards, and although some original recordings by Scott have been reissued, their colors seem faded and wan when heard through modern stereos. Thank goodness for the Beau Hunks Sextette and "Celebration on the Planet Mars." This Dutch ensemble re-creates Scott's original recordings with such maniacal care and attention to detail you'd almost think the album was recorded via time machine. From simple sketches like "The Toy Trumpet" or "The Penguin" to such elaborate set pieces as "Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals," the Beau Hunks approach Scott's music with the sort of reverence usually reserved for Beethoven and Mozart -- which, as any fan will tell you, is precisely what the music demands. Definitely worth seeking.