Surfacing (Arista/Nettwerk 18970)
Rock and roll being loud by nature, it's often assumed that quiet is just a cover-up for having nothing of substance to say. It's a ridiculous notion, of course, but seldom has it been put to rest as succinctly as on Sarah McLachlan's fourth album, "Surfacing." Even though there are times when McLachlan's voice barely rises above a murmur, her approach is so suited to the songs that the quiet itself seems to draw you in. "I Love You" is a case in point, a whispery dream of a song that turns its softness into strength as McLachlan takes us through all the warm and fuzzy feelings that come with true love. That's not to suggest there's no edge or aggression to her music; "Black & White" is soulful and rhythm-driven enough that its chorus takes on the urgency of a club hit, while "Sweet Surrender" tempers its gentle melody with enough squawking electronics to suggest that McLachlan has spent at least a little time listening to her Canadian label-mates Skinny Puppy. But from the sad, bluesy swagger of "Building a Mystery" to the sweet, spiritual release of "Angel," the album's best songs have less to do with texture than with sheer melodic uplift, making "Surfacing" one of the season's most buoyant releases.
Puff Daddy & the Family
No Way Out (Bad Boy/Arista 73012)
Between his own singles and those he produced for the Notorious B.I.G., there's been no escaping Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs on the radio these past five months. But if all you know of Puff Daddy's sound are the singles "I'll Be Missing You" and "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down," the rapper/producer's debut might come as a surprise. For one thing, few other tracks on the album are as blatant about exploiting their source material as are "Missing You" (a gloss on the Police hit "Every Breath You Take") or "Hold Me Down" (a virtual rewrite of Grandmaster Flash's epochal "The Message"). True, "Been Around the World" owes most of its momentum to a sample from David Bowie's "Let's Dance," and "Don't Stop What You're Doing" is little more than Yarbrough and People's "Don't Stop the Music" augmented by a sex rap. On the other hand, "What You Gonna Do?" and "Young G's" manage to make their sample-heavy grooves seem so fresh and distinctive they almost upstage the raps. Still, given the extent to which Puff Daddy mourns the death of his buddy B.I.G. and frets over his own mortality, wouldn't it have made sense to deep-six gun-slinging gangsta stuff like "Victory"? Or is Puff Daddy really that eager to become the doomed hero he plays in "If I Should Die Tonight" and "Pain"?
MTV Unplugged EP (Columbia 68515)
Because the acoustic instrumentation makes such an attractive gimmick, a lot of listeners assume that MTV Unplugged sessions are mainly about the lack of electronics. But Maxwell's "MTV Unplugged EP" offers a different theory. Sure, the retro-soul singer makes heavy use of acoustic guitar and real strings in these seven songs, but there's also a fair amount of electric piano and synthesizer fleshing out the sound. So what's the big deal? Two things. First, Maxwell unveils some unexpected material in the session, including a delightful cover of Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" (has his falsetto ever been put to better use?). Secondly, the semi-acoustic arrangements lend an almost organic feel to the playing, infusing "Whenever, Wherever, Whatever" with a jazzy, string-soaked warmth, and adding such elasticity to the groove in "Gotta Get: Closer" that the band moves from funk to a gospel feel without ever seeming to stretch the song out of shape.
Spawn: The Album (Immortal/Epic 68494)
What is it about soundtrack projects that makes hard rockers want to change their tune? Consider, for example, the "Spawn" movie spinoff, "Spawn: The Album." Taking its cue from the "Judgement Night" soundtrack of a few years back, in which thrash acts joined forces with hardcore rappers, "Spawn: The Album" finds hard rockers and industrial bands hooking up with DJs and techno acts. But instead of hashing out a consistent fusion as the "Judgement Night" album did, "Spawn: The Album" presents a range of musical possibilities. For instance, when Prodigy teams up with Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine for "One Man Army," what emerges is a raucous, rock-oriented twist on club music -- a sound similar to what emerges from merger of Korn and the Dust Brothers on "Kick the P.A.," or Orbital and Metallica's Kirk Hammet on "Satan." On the other hand, Metallica's number with DJ Spooky is less a collaboration than a deconstruction, as Spooky turns "For Whom the Bell Tolls" inside out. Nor is Spooky the only one trying that tack, as Vitro gives a similar spin to Silverchair's sound on "Spawn." But the most interesting tracks are those which find unlike acts meeting on common ground, as is the case with Marilyn Manson's work with the Sneaker Pimps on "Long Hard Road Out of Hell," and Slayer and Atari Teenage Riot's adrenalized run through "No Remorse (I Wanna Die)."
Pub Date: 7/31/97