Reba McEntire (MCA 11264)
Imitation may be mere flattery elsewhere, but in the music world it's more often meant as a means of illuminating an artist's influences. That's part of the reason Reba McEntire recorded "Starting Over," a collection of songs she describes as having "influenced me, and ultimately the music I record." McEntire's selection of songs ranges from the expected, Crystal Gayle's "Talking In Your Sleep" and Linda Ronstadt's version of "You're No Good," to such out-of-left-field oldies as the Michael McDonald/Gladys Knight hit "On My Own," and "You Keep Me Hangin' On" by Diana Ross and the Supremes. What she learned from those singers is difficult to discern, however, because even though her remakes generally refer directly to the original recordings -- "You're No Good," for instance, is a note-for-note re-creation of Andrew Gold's arrangement for Linda Ronstadt -- the singing is entirely McEntire. In fact, her performances are so consistent that everything begins to sound alike after a while, suggesting McEntire hasn't absorbed as much of her influences as she thinks.
P.M. Dawn (Gee Street 314524 147)
There was a time when P.M. Dawn was considered a rap group, albeit a fairly trippy one. But that's hardly the case with "Jesus Wept," which finds the Dawn breaking more like pop stars. For starters, the duo has all but done away with rapping, opting instead for soft, soulful singing that floats like mist over the exquisitely concocted hip hop rhythm tracks. But there's also a genuine sense of pop ambition to the album, from the adventurous remakes of "1999" and "Once In a Lifetime" that open "Fantasia's Confidential Ghetto," to the deep, mystical concept underlying the album. Factor in the lush, seductive sound the Dawn provides for tunes like "Downtown Venus" and "Miles from Anything," and "Jesus Wept" adds up as an immensely listenable album. Trouble is, once you get past that alluring surface, there's not a lot to these songs -- not only do the songs tend to be sing-song simple, but the lax, wispy voices of Prince Be and J.C. the Eternal simply lack the strength to carry much of a melody.
Gloria Estefan (Epic 67284)
After paying homage to her Cuban heritage with "Mi Tierra," Gloria Estefan broadens her view considerably with "Abriendo Puertas," an album of songs drawing from the musical traditions of Colombia, Peru, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. If that makes it sound more like a travelogue than a pop album, don't worry -- Estefan's sure-footed melodic instincts keep the music from ever wandering off course, ensuring that the songs are every bit as catchy as on her earlier albums. If anything, the rhythmic cross-pollination only adds to the music's appeal, from the blend of vallenato accordion and merengue brass bubbling beneath "Tres Deseos" to the irresistibly rhythmic fusion of cumbia and son in "Dulce Amor." That's not to say that the album is all groove; "Farolito" owes its strength as much to the emotional power of Estefan's voice as to the pulsing percussion, while the lovely "Mas Alla" is one of the best ballads she's recorded. Still, it's hard to imagine how any listener could be immune to the chirping clarinets and accordions of "La Parranda" or the cheery charanga groove that powers "Felicidad."
The Great Escape
Blur (Virgin 40855)
Hype is a way of life for the English music press, and papers like Melody Maker or the New Musical Express devote dozens of pages weekly to extravagant praise of the latest fave rave. So when the Maker recently declared Blur's "The Great Escape" to be "the album of the decade," most readers on this side of the Atlantic just yawned, sure that another, equally momentous release would be along shortly. Let's not get too cynical, though; "The Great Escape" may not be the defining work of the '90s, but it is the best Brit-rock release this year. Some of that has to do with the way the band has reigned in its indebtedness to '80s new wave, avoiding direct quotes in favor of broad-stroke allusions like the Madness-style ska of "Fade Away." Mostly, though, it's simply a matter of songwriting. It's impressive enough that singer Damon Albarn sketches devastating caricatures of contemporary British class struggle, from the suburban striving of "Stereotypes" to the industrial-society sarcasm of "Yuko and Hiro," but what really makes this album a keeper is that he matches those words with eminently memorable melodies. Whether it's the sly, Kinks-ian charm of "Charmless Man" or the raucous, sing-along choruses to "Country House," there are at least a dozen reasons to take "The Great Escape."