MTV Unplugged (Mercury 314 528 950)
What rock fan hasn't, while sitting around the campfire, been seized by the urge to break out acoustic guitars and rip into a few choruses of "Rock and Roll All Nite"? All right, most of you. But that doesn't diminish the charm of hearing all-acoustic versions of that song and other KISS oldies on "MTV Unplugged" especially when they're performed by the band's original lineup. Of course, it isn't quite the KISS reunion purists have prayed for, as the classic quartet Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss is augmented by latter-day KISS-ers Bruce Kulick and Eric Singer, but less finicky fans will hardly bat an eye. After all, what matters most isn't how many guys the band puts onstage, but what they sound like and this lineup sounds pretty good. Even without the amps blaring, there's plenty of snap and crackle to such rockers as "Domino" and "Comin' Home," while the acoustic format actually emphasizes the melodic elements in "See You Tonight," "Every Time I Look at You" and (of course) "Beth." Granted, the album isn't perfect because he sings it as hard as if it were electric, Stanley seems almost on the verge of self-parody in "I Still Love You" but it's catchy and fun. And isn't that all KISS fans really expect?
Falling Into You (550 Music/Epic 67541)
Don't be fooled by the unassuming pose Celine Dion strikes on TC the cover of "Falling Into You." Though the T-shirt and jeans she wears might suggest something casual and unpretentious, the music inside is anything but, tending instead toward the worst sort of vocal overkill and studio bombast. It's not so bad when Dion is dealing with material like "It's All Coming Back to Me Now," because at least the mock-operatic scale of Jim Steinman's writing provides a certain amount of dramatic context for her full-throated wail. Sadly, that's not the case with such sub-Whitney Houston fare as "Because You Loved Me" or the brassy "Declaration of Love," because what drives the vocal performance on those tracks isn't the color-by-numbers material, but Dion's desire to show just how big a sound she can make. Then there's her overblown electropop remake of "River Deep, Mountain High," which does little beyond showing how much Dion could learn from Tina Turner. It's a shame, too, that so much of the album is given over to needless histrionics, because when Dion emphasizes her shading and control, as on "I Love You" or the reggae-tinged "Make You Happy," she seems a far more compelling singer.
The New Standard (Verve 314 529 584)
Jazz musicians have always played the pop hits of the day, and often with a pop-savvy approach to the groove (remember the Ramsey Lewis albums of the '60s and '70s?). What many listeners forget, though, is that the tunes we think of as standards were also pop hits once and were adapted to the jazz idiom over time. And as Herbie Hancock sees it, there's no reason this process can't continue hence, "The New Standard." Even though the songs he draws from hardly count as mainstream repertoire Don Henley's "New York Minute," Prince's "Thieves in the Temple," Peter Gabriel's "Mercy Street" the playing is as straight-ahead as anything Wynton Marsalis has recorded recently. It helps that Hancock's band, which includes saxophonist Michael Brecker, guitarist John Scofield, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette, avoids rock licks entirely, treating Stevie Wonder's "You've Got It Bad, Girl" as if it were a bop tune, and making "Love Is Stronger Than Pride" seem less like a Sade tune than a cousin to "Cantaloupe Island." But it's Hancock's harmonic ingenuity and sympathy for the material that ultimately carries the day, pulling poetry from the simple chords of Nirvana's "All Apologies."
A Show of Hands (Compass 4231)
Unless you happen to be a bass player yourself, it's unlikely that an entire album of bass solos holds much appeal. Bass, after all, is not exactly well-known for its melodic qualities, and though it's easy for a bassist to get an audience going with a flashy show of slap-and-pop, it's hard to keep them interested for more than a chorus or two. That is, unless you're dealing with a bassist like Victor Wooten, whose solo bass album "A Show of Hands" is so tuneful and entertaining you may wonder if he sneaked some other instruments in when you weren't looking. As bassist with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (who perform this evening at the Gordon Center), Wooten has long been known for both his technical prowess and ability to move beyond the usual role of harmonic axis, but even that barely hints at what he does on his own. Some of what he does is astonishingly simple, as with "U Can't Hold No Groove," which takes the basic vocabulary of funk bass and demonstrates just how much can be said with it. Other performances, though, are dazzlingly ornate, as with the show-stopping "Classical Thump" or the Stevie Wonder tune "Overjoyed," on which Wooten treats the bass like a sort of oversized guitar, complete with chords. All told, it's an amazing and stereotype-shattering album.
Pub Date: 3/21/96