Wynonna (Curb/MCA 11090)
It's always good to see a singer stretching limits and broadening horizons, but with all the unexpected twists and turns presented on "Revelations," it's worth wondering if Wynonna hasn't gone too far in that direction. It isn't so much that the material runs mostly to rock and soul; that's been the case with her solo albums from the first. Rather, the problem with "Revelations" is that it virtually ignores the country side of her sound, presenting her less as a Nashville crossover than as just another middle-of-the-road pop singer. For all the vocal power and instrumental polish put into such tunes as "To Be Loved By You" and "Heaven Help My Heart," there's precious little passion to be heard, making the songs sound pretty but vacant. Things heat up a bit when Wynonna wanders over to the rock side of her repertoire, but, frankly, songs like "Somebody To Love You" and "Old Enough To Know Better" draw their power less from her soulful whoops and deep-throated growl than from the snarling guitar of Stueart Smith. (While we're on the subject of rock, was it really necessary for her to include a version of "Free Bird" here? I mean, couldn't she have just saved it for the shower, like everybody else?) Apart from the quirky chorus to "Change the World" and the gospel uplift of "Dance! Shout!" the only surprise on "Revelations" is how dull it all is -- and, frankly, that's news we could have done without.
1996 Grammy Nominees
Various Artists (Grammy/Sony 67565)
At first glance, the "1996 Grammy Nominees" collection might seem a bit of a gyp. Although the cover promises the top 15 Grammy contenders -- that is, every nominee in the Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best New Artist categories -- the CD itself includes only 11 selections. Nobody got the short shrift, though; the low total is because Joan Osborne's "One of Us" was nominated in three categories, while Seal's "Kiss from a Rose" and Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know" are up for two each. Clearly, having so many contenders together in one package makes this quite a hits collection, but it also shows how closely matched this year's nominees are. Even though "One of Us," "Kiss from a Rose," Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise" and TLC's "Waterfalls" are worlds apart stylistically, each is so catchy and well-crafted that choosing between them for Record of the Year truly seems like splitting hairs. Likewise, hearing "You Are Not Alone" in this context suggests that regardless of what the industry thinks of Michael Jackson these days, this R. Kelly tune deserves its shot at Song of the Year. All told, this is an excellent investment for Grammy handicappers.
Congratulations I'm Sorry
Gin Blossoms (A&M; 31454 0469)
Let's be honest -- the biggest challenge the Gin Blossoms faced in finishing the follow-up to the 1992 smash "New Miserable Experience" wasn't finding a way to replace the late Doug Hopkins (who wrote the breakthrough hits "Hey Jealousy" and "Found Out About You"), but figuring out how to keep the new songs exactly like the old ones. Given the monochromatic nature of the band's sound, that would take some doing, but "Congratulations I'm Sorry" generally keeps the Gin Blossoms from sounding like a group of Johnny One-Notes. Some of that extends from the arrangements, which deftly deploy vocal harmony, and instrumental flourishes make the most of the band's limited palette. "Follow You Down," for instance, distinguishes itself through a harmony-cushioned chorus and bursts of bittersweet harmonica, while "As Long As It Matters" buoys its melancholy melody with a mildly funky pulse. But craft can take a band only so far, and what ultimately carries the album is the songwriting, which doesn't peak all that often -- "Virginia" is perhaps the only standout -- but is of a consistently higher quality than the Blossoms' debut.
The Color of Dusk
Wall Matthews and Aleta Greene (Clean Cuts 715)
A lot of albums play at telling a story, but few actually deliver a coherent sense of narrative. Fortunately, Wall Matthews and Aleta Greene's "The Color of Dusk" is one of those few. Drawn from Dolores Kendrick's cycle of poems, "The Women of Plums: Poems in the Voices of Slave Women," the album offers a bracingly vivid picture of slave life, from the prayerful courage of "Ndzeli in Passage" to the prideful ambivalence of "A Slightly Colored Lady." Yet as strong as the words are, it's Greene's delivery that truly brings them to life. Blending blues, gospel and African elements with effortless authority, she brings such polish and charisma to the music that it's hard to believe that this is the Baltimorean's first solo recording. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the melodies Matthews has written for her convey the emotional essence of the words while remaining resiliently tuneful. "Leah: In Freedom," for instance, evokes its runaway slave atmosphere through throbbing African percussion and call-and-response vocals but keeps the listener hooked by making each phrase so sing-along catchy that it's tempting to join in on each response. And when Matthews moves from percussion to guitar, as on "Tildy's Prayer," he brings a blues element to the music that's as evocative as a Ry Cooder soundtrack. Definitely an album to discover.