The Velvet Rope (Virgin 44762)
In club culture, the velvet rope is the line that marks off the private spaces in which the famous can be themselves without worrying about what the public thinks. So when Janet Jackson invites her audience behind "The Velvet Rope," what she's really offering is a chance to see her as she really is. What she reveals may be more than some fans want to know -- as a sexual adventurer, Jackson examines everything from bondage to bisexuality -- but she's not trying to be shocking or sensational. Instead, as "Freexone" puts it, she's trying to create a space where people are "free to be/Who you really are." Jackson certainly takes that philosophy to heart on the musical front, for "The Velvet Rope" revels in the range of her eclectic tastes. It isn't just that the grooves run the gamut from hip-hop (the scratch-heavy "Got 'Til It's Gone") to house (the exuberant "Together Again") to hi-tech funk (the thumping, sample-heavy "You"); even the slow songs cover an impressive amount of ground. After all, how many other singers could put equal amounts of heat into both the soulful "I Get Lonely" and the Rod Stewart oldie "Tonight's the Night"? A truly daring album.
So Much for the Afterglow (Capitol 36503)
That Everclear opens "So Much for the Afterglow" with several bars of sweet, a capella vocal harmony before cranking the guitars into full alternarock overdrive says a lot about the band. For one thing, the trio truly understands the importance of dynamics in an arrangement; for another, it's not at all shy about admitting what an influence Beach Boys auteur Brian Wilson has been. That may seem a surprise at first, given the stylistic distance between Wilson's wistful soundscapes and the rough-edged, over-amped sound Everclear prefers. But despite all the distortion, there's a lot of subtlety to Everclear's arrangements, from quiet touches like the toy piano mixed under the guitars in "I Will Buy You a New Life" to the hidden in the semi-orchestral depths of such fully-cranked rockers as "Like a California King." It helps that the band's chief songwriter and producer, frontman Art Alexakis, has a great ear for odd combinations of sound, building a sly, funky pulse out of tape loops and percussion on "One Hit Wonders." But his greatest strength is his way with a melody, something that makes even the emotional self-indulgence of "Why I Don't Believe in God" seem downright catchy.
Think Like a Girl (Columbia 67959)
Most people think of reggae music as being strictly about riddim, but it also has a strong and distinctive vocal tradition. Diana King is a case in point. Although her music generally has more in common with the funky Europop of acts like Robyn or LaBouche, her delivery clearly has its roots in Jamaica. Some of that has to do with the way she slips into patois during "L-L-Lies," but mostly it's a matter of emphasis and flow. Like most reggae singers, King keeps her phrasing lean and taut, avoiding the ornate elaboration that colors modern R&B.; Not only does that add to the rhythmic kick of tracks like the slinky, bass-driven "Sweeter" or her sassy remake of "I Say a Little Prayer," her tendency to underplay the melodies adds to the emotional impact of the ballads. "Tenderness" is an excellent example, being sad and sweet in exactly the ways the lyric would suggest, but she also brings impressive depth to the Culture Club classic "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me." But even such up-tempo tunes as "New Galfriend" are delivered with such unfeigned intensity that King's depth of feeling is often as much a hook as the chorus.
Una Mujer Como Yo (Crescent Moon/Epic 68804)
Great music doesn't need translation, and few singers make that point as explicitly as Albita does on "Una Mujer Como Yo." It isn't just that the Cuban-born singer utters nary a word of English; it's that her singing speaks to the listener in ways that make mere language seem inadequate. Her voice is dark and lustrous, with all the sweet sonority of a trombone, and she uses that to great effect against the brass and percussion of "Me Demito" or the breathlessly rhythmic "Ven a Verme." She's also blessed with incredible stylistic range, seeming as at home with the utterly urban sound of "Y No Tengo Guano" as with the rural rhythms of "Tocame con un Beso" or the vallenato-flavored "El Amore Llego." But her greatest strength is the absolute authority with which she delivers these songs. It hardly matters whether she's singing in unison with her band, as on the fevered "Ta' Bueno Ya," or working against the ensemble as she does in "Rie Rie"; her voice seems to drive the band, bringing the percolating percussion to a boil and adding brass to the horn arrangements. Passion like that is rare in popular music, but it comes through so clearly in "Una Mujer Como Yo" that almost any music fan will find that they speak Albita's language.
Pub Date: 10/09/97