What If It's You (MCA 11500)
It's tough, trying to square show-business ambition with the unaffected honesty of country music. Ever since Reba McEntire's albums began to make inroads into the pop market, her sound seemed to get slicker and her material more overwrought with each passing album. Maybe that's why "What If It's You" seems such a refreshing return. Although no one is going to mistake McEntire for Alison Krauss here, the songs no longer feel so pumped-up and calculated. "I'd Rather Ride Around With You," for instance, may have the well-crafted construction of a first-class pop song, but McEntire's performance lends it such credibility that it could almost be taken for autobiography, while "State of Grace" is the kind of character study that leaves the listener hanging on every word. That's not to say McEntire has abandoned her pop ambitions, as the arrangements here are chockablock with rock-oriented touches, like the chorus to "She's Callin' It Love" or the semi-Springsteenian intro to "How Was I To Know." But it's worth noting that the album's most openly commercial tune, "The Fear of Being Alone," not only finds the instrumental arrangement kept lean and mean, but boasts one of McEntire's most restrained performances.
Ill Na Na (Def Jam 314 533 684)
Given how popular old-school soul has become with hip-hop fans, it was probably inevitable that we'd end up with retro rap like what Foxy Brown throws "Ill Na Na." Like those on the R&B; side, Brown's version of the past is heavily grounded in the present. For instance, when she remakes L.L. Cool J's "Rock the Bells," she keeps the original's Latin percussion and turntable scratching, but changes the vocal flow completely, hanging back off the beat instead of pounding every syllable the way L.L. did. Likewise, the title tune finds Brown working an old-fashioned groove (just drum machine and a DJ scratching "Brick House") with an unabashedly modern take on that classic cadence, while Method Man offers typically blunted counterpoint. But Brown's greatest strength has to be the way her slightly hoarse voice fits with the album's more soulful material. She blends easily with Blackstreet's silky-smooth harmonies on "Get Me Home" (which
sounds genuinely romantic despite the raw edges of Brown's rap), and works well against the S.O.S. Band sample in the equally edgy "No One." Could it be that, despite all her hard talk, Brown is an old-fashioned girl at heart?
Fever In Fever Out (Capitol 35534)
Some bands burn and others blaze, but Luscious Jackson stays at a steady smolder throughout its sophomore album, "Fever In Fever Out." It isn't just the way Jill Cunniff's low-key alto rarely rises above a murmur; the whole band revels in musical understatement, keeping the song structures simple, the arrangements lean and uncluttered. Yet there's obvious heat bubbling beneath that unharried surface. You can hear it in the friction between the anxious keyboards and itchy hi-hat of "Take a Ride" and in the shimmering textures and throbbing pulse that powers "Electric." Granted, the band's sound isn't entirely original -- there are echoes of Cibo Matto's textural dexterity in "Don't Look Back" and Stereolab's polished percolation in "Faith" -- and there are moments when the band's approach verges on the unduly slick. But that rarely works against the music. In fact, the band's conscious attempts to polish its material considerably enhance the album's best songs, bringing added charm to the soaring "Why Do I Lie?" and an intoxicating edge to the delicious "Naked Eye."
Wipeout XL (Astralwerks 61892)
Anthologies may seem second-rate in other styles, but they're an essential part of the dance music market. And a good thing, too, given the number of one-hit wonders the genre produces. But compilation albums rarely add up as beautifully as "Wipeout XL." A thoroughly addictive assemblage of modern electronica, it pulls together tracks from the Future Sound of London, the Chemical Brothers, Leftfield, Underworld, Orbital and Prodigy, among others. As diverse as the groups are, though, the music never comes across as a hodgepodge. Some of that has to do with the quality of the material -- after all, the Chemicals' relentless "Loops of Fury" would sound pretty great in any context -- but mostly it's a function of the album's pacing and track order. After the cool, frenetic thrum of Underworld's "Tin There," the clanking violence and uneven cadences of Photek's "The Third Sequence" are positively bracing. Likewise, the itchy bass and nervous, fluttering electro-percussion that animates Orbital's "Petrol" provides the perfect tension for the release implicit in the smooth polyrhythms and loping pulse of Leftfield's "Afro Ride." But the album's greatest strength is that each of these singles is worth hearing in its own right, from Fluke's thrumming "USK" to FSOL's bracingly abrasive "We Have Explosive."
Pub Date: 12/19/96