Older (DreamWorks 50000)
George Michael's fight to free himself from his contract with Sony must have been more about art than commerce. Because judging from the sound of "Older," the singer's first full album in six years, Michael is hardly the hit machine he used to be. That's not to say his new material is badly written; if anything, the likes of "Fastlove" or the jazzy "Move On" show a sophistication sorely lacking in Michael's early work. But there's not much pop in these songs, meaning that even when the rhythm tracks get funky, the music itself stays fairly forlorn. Michael plays quite effectively on the disparity between rhythm and mood, using the contrast between the sassy groove and the self-pitying lyrics in "Star People" to underscore the emptiness of celebrity and letting the jaunty electrobeats beneath "It Doesn't Really Matter" put the lie to the romantic resignation of its lyrics. It's smart work, and sometimes quite moving, but hardly you-gotta-hear-this compelling -- and that's the problem. Melancholy meditations such as "Jesus to a Child" are not going to save his career, and Michael needs to learn that memorable melodies are better than moody ones. After all, he's not getting any younger, as "Older" all-too-painfully makes clear.
Brooks & Dunn
Borderline (Arista 18810)
Who are Brooks & Dunn really? Though their sound seemed solid enough early on, the stylistic shifts that dominate "Borderline" throw the duo's identity into question. It isn't just the way the arrangements shift from lightly Latin percussion on "My Maria" to whining pedal steel guitar on "Why Would I Say Goodbye," and to boogie guitar for "Redneck Rhythm & Blues"; at times, it seems as if the band is suffering from a sort of multiple personality disorder. When they tackle "A Man This Lonely," they make such a strong case for macho sensitivity you might mistake the tune for a Garth Brooks outtake, while the angular guitar and drawling delivery of "Mama Don't Get Dressed Up for Nothing" are enough to make it seem as if the group was trying out its Dire Straits impression. As for "More Than a Margarita," well . . . can you say "sounds like Jimmy Buffett"? (I knew you could.) Add in a few color-by-number genre exercises, such as the halfhearted honky-tonk tune "One Heartache at a Time" or the mild, Mexican-flavored "Tequila Town," and it definitely seems as if this duo is in a desperate identity crisis.
Live Around the World (Warner Bros. 46032)
Because many of the studio recordings Miles Davis made toward the end of his career relied so heavily on overdubs and programming, it's easy to forget that his live performances from that era were anything but prefab. Fortunately, there's plenty of hard evidence on hand in "Live Around the World," an 11-tune collection culled from concerts recorded between 1988 and 1990. There's a strong pop component to the album, and those fans who consider "On the Corner" or "Doo-Bop" to be rhythm-driven drivel will doubtless find little to admire in such funk-intensive workouts as "Full Nelson." But only the most churlish and uncharitable could deny the pleasures of his classic Cyndi Lauper cover, "Time After Time," or the melodic grace he brings to the Michael Jackson hit "Human Nature." Besides, for every beat-oriented selection, there's another that's spare and cerebral. The album opens with a lovely evocation of "In a Silent Way" and furthers that mood later with the strikingly lyrical "New Blues" and a stately, well-tempered run through "Mr. Pastorius." All told, it's an impressive document of Davis' last years and a pleasant way to shake up the average fan's preconceptions.
Rude Awakening (Epic 66945)
Prong is hardly the first band to bind the ear-pummeling power of distorted guitar to the bone-crunching intensity of industrial dance music, but even so, there's no denying the impact of "Rude Awakening." From the tightly coiled pulse of "Controller" to the monstrous, malevolent thump of "Face Value," this trio does an admirable job of balancing melodic invention with sonic impact, so the songs seem as memorable as they are powerful. It's also easy to get caught up in the album's oppressive mood, though figuring out just how these dark mutterings connect with the Cold War photos included in the CD booklet takes a little more effort (hint: it helps if you have a CD-ROM drive and can access the multimedia portion of the bonus track). Even if you can't grasp the message, there's no mistaking the music's might, for as "Dark Signs" and "Slicing" make plain, few bands bridge the gap between thrash and industrial as effectively as Prong.
Pub Date: 5/16/96