Recovering the Satellites (DGC 24975)
It was hardly surprising that many reviewers pegged Counting Crows as classic rock wannabes, given the way "August and Everything After" amplified Adam Duritz's Van Morrison-ish vocal mannerisms and the stately, Band-like grandiosity of the arrangements. With "Recovering the Satellites," though, the Crows move from the specific to the general, avoiding obvious echoes of older acts while evoking the sort of sweeping ambition and intensely personal lyrics that marked many of the '70s' most memorable albums. These new aspirations are most obvious in the album's bigger numbers, such as the string-soaked "I'm Not Sleeping" or the rousing "Have You Seen Me Lately," but it isn't all a matter of musical bombast; some of the strongest songs are also some of the quietest, like the whispery "Walkaways" or the slow-building "Goodnight Elizabeth." Nor does the weight of each performance rest entirely on Duritz's shoulders, as the band takes a remarkably collaborative approach to the playing. The gently swinging "Another Horsedreamer's Blues," for instance, finds the band grooving as a single entity, while the raucous, roiling
"Angels of the Silences" comes across with such force and focus that the guitars, keyboards and vocals at times blur into a single mass of sound. Certainly no sophomore slump here.
Stardust (Elektra 61946)
It's one thing for a rock-era singer to be able to sing the standards of the pre-rock era, quite another for that singer to develop an identifiable sense of style. That's the problem Natalie Cole faces with "Stardust," her third album of old-school pop. Although there's no faulting her taste in material -- a brace of songs ranging from "Stardust" and "Teach Me Tonight" to such jazzy items as "Dindi" and "Ahmad's Blues" -- what she does with those tunes is somewhat less impressive. As much as her lush tone and warm vibrato might add a languorous beauty to "What a Difference a Day Makes" and "Where Can I Go Without You," her singing rarely elevates the melodies; it's content to be merely pretty, offering no sense of character or emotional insight. And though her jazz stylings are more convincing than they were on "Unforgettable," it's hard to be convinced by what she does on "Ahmad's Blues" or "Let's Face the Music and Dance." As for the now-obligatory duet with her dear, dead dad, the initial rendition of "When I Fall in Love" is pleasant enough, but did we really need a second version with her singing in Spanish? Oh, well -- at least they didn't use a computer to digitally translate his vocal. . . .
Baja Sessions (Reprise 46325)
Cool being mostly a matter of suggestion, what makes Chris Isaak such an awesomely cool performer is his ability to convey enormous power while barely raising his voice above a murmur. That's certainly the case with his "Baja Sessions," an album of love songs that, on the surface, seems mired in heavy-lidded torpor -- but underneath is as torrid as rock gets. It helps, of course, that the songs reek of languid sensuality, from the arching, falsetto chorus of "Pretty Girls Don't Cry" to the broken-voiced blues of "Wrong To Love You." But most of the credit belongs to Isaak himself. A master of understatement, he can convey a wealth of emotional information through something as simple as a change in vocal tone, and that allows him to pull tremendous depth from these songs without ever raising his voice above a whisper. That's how he can put across all the pathos in "Only the Lonely" without resorting to the kind of fireworks Roy Orbison unleashed in the original, and why Isaak's rendition of "Yellow Bird" is one of the saddest and prettiest on record. Who says you have to make a big noise to leave a big impression?
If Albita ever wound up doing for American pop what she has done for Cuban music, she could end up being one of the biggest stars on the planet. As it is, she's merely one of the most awesome, exhibiting the sort of passion and polish found only in the greatest of singers. In terms of its sound and songwriting, "Dicen Que..." is very much in the vein of its predecessor, "No Se Parece a Nada." In terms of the performance, however, everything seems kicked up a notch -- the ballads seem sweeter, the up-tempo tunes more driving, the rhythm breaks more percussive. Sometimes, she even squeezes all that into a single song, as on "Mirame, Rozame, Amame," where she moves from a whisper to a shout and back again so seamlessly that your ear barely registers a change (though your pulse surely will). Longtime fans will be impressed that she's working with a broader stylistic palette, embracing everything from the rustic colors of "Habra Musica Guajira" to the brassy urban blare of "Valga El Brillo De Tus Ojos." But even if you speak no Spanish and know little of the musical tradition of Cuba, odds are that Albita will win you over. Because the kind of vocal authority she exhibits on the pulsing, percussive "Hoy No Voy A Trabajar" needs no translation.
Pub Date: 10/17/96