All Saints (London 422 828 997)
In Britain, All Saints are considered the logical successor to the Spice Girls. Granted, this has more to do with their gender (feminine) and appearance (casually sexy) than with their sound, but then, that's the way British pop fans think it should be. After all, they're used to judging bands on the basis of their concept and collective personality.
Here in the States, All Saints will be seen as similar to the Spice Girls only by virtue of their nationality (English, though even that is a bit of a stretch, considering that two of the four are actually Canadian). Otherwise, calling the quartet "the new Spice Girls" will only confuse listeners - in part because the old Spice Girls are still around, but mostly because the two groups sound nothing alike.
In fact, if comparisons are to be made at all, All Saints would be more accurately likened to a cross between Eternal and the Mary Jane Girls. Like Eternal, All Saints combine the carefully honed discipline of a singles-oriented pop act with the perfect four-part harmonies of a hard-core soul group. And like the Mary Jane Girls, All Saints manage to seem deeply funky without ever coming across as particularly, er, deep.
If anything, the four seem almost to revel in their shallowness. For instance, when they perform the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under the Bridge," they don't even attempt to make the song theirs, much less extract some personal meaning from its lyric. Instead, they deliver it with all the enthusiasm and fidelity of the average MTV viewer - though, to be fair, it's doubtful that many MTViewers would sing along in four-part harmony.
"Lady Marmalade," the album's other well-known cover, is even more embarrassing. Not only are the Saints unable to match the sexy sass of LaBelle's original, but the group's attempt to put a hip-hop spin on the tune fails miserably.
In fairness, the fault there lies more with the track's overblown arrangement than with the Saints themselves. Unlike the Spice Girls, whose sound is too firmly grounded in pop to seem soulful, All Saints have a genuine feel for R&B; and funk. It would not be difficult, for instance, to imagine TLC doing a tune like "Trapped" - though it's doubtful they would do it better than All Saints - and it's easy to hear the En Vogue influence in the tight, soulful harmonies that power "I Know Where It's At."
Simply put, these ladies can really sing. Unfortunately, what they sing seldom does their talent justice. Although the rhythm arrangements are much funkier than what's found on most Brit pop albums, they too often assume that a good groove can carry a weak song. Not so. If anything, the lack of memorable melodies ends up working against such funk-fests as "Beg" and "Alone."
Still, the fact that All Saints can pull credible performances from piffle like "Never Ever" - which is basically just "Amazing Grace" with a cheap new melody pasted on top - suggests that the group has yet to realize its full potential. Pair this group with a writer/producer on the level of Jermaine Dupri or Dallas Austin, and All Saints will truly be heavenly. ** Midnight Mood GRP (9902)
You really want to like George Howard's "Midnight Mood" because of his earnestness and his skill. Howard (pictured) attacks his soprano saxophone with a dedication and intensity that is absent from other, bigger-name soprano saxophonists, like, oh, Kenny G, for instance. But, unfortunately, none of the nine tunes is terribly compelling. Howard's artistry falls flat among rather pedestrian arrangements and lifeless melodies. One indistinguishable song just seems to meld into the next indistinguishable song until, by disc's end, what's missing is a listener's sense of connection to the music.
Left of the Middle (RCA 67643)
Like Lisa Loeb or Alana Davis, Natalie Imbruglia specializes in ingenue pop. For all the womanly warmth in her material, her voice is simply too light and girlish to sound fully grown. But that actually works to her advantage on "Left of the Middle." Imbruglia loves to inflate teapot tempests into emotional maelstroms, and while that has its advantages musically - she really struts her stuff when working dynamic numbers like "Big Mistake" - lyrically, such sentiment would seem silly from a grown-up. Fortunately, the words and music do at times work at the same level, as with the lovely, bittersweet "Torn," but on the whole, the album's strength is the pop confectionery of "Wishing I Was There" and "Don't You Think." ***
Ball of Fire (Island Jamaica Jazz 314-524-420)
"It's background music," says the 14-year-old No Doubt fan living in my house as the Skatalites' new CD plays on the stereo. Well, young lady, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson in "A Few Good Men": You want real ska? You can't handle real ska. The Skatalites first formed in the 1960s, during ska's earliest days. If you like your ska simple, stripped down, "Ball of Fire" may be for you. Prime example: the Skatalites' version of the James Bond theme, which opens the CD. The sound - including two saxophones, a trumpet and a trombone - is not exactly music to blow up military installations to. The CD may be "Ball of Fire," but the 10 instrumentals don't really turn the flames up high.
Jimmy Ray (Epic 69104)
Between his big black quiff and his rockabilly duds, Britain's Jimmy Ray looks like a refugee from some Stray Cats tribute band. So how did "Jimmy Ray" end up sounding so funky? Mainly because ol' J.R. understands how to find a contemporary context for old-time rock ideas. So even though "Are You Jimmy Ray" is driven by drum machine and a thumping synth bass, its Bo Diddley guitar and call-and-response chorus could have come from almost any decade in rock. And that's just as true of the rest of the album, from "Goin' to Vegas," which cuts from Buddy Holly guitar to hip-hop drums, to the surf guitar-meets-dancehall reggae groove of "Way Low." **1/2
Low Estate (A&M; 31454 0840)
Ever wonder what sounds haunt the rooms of an old, abandoned farmhouse? It's a fair bet they're something like "Low Estate," the latest from cowpunk band Sixteen Horsepower. Spookier lyrics you will not find: "I beseech the Lord clear my head/Before once again I scar the soul/Of that girl in my bed" sets the tone on opening track "Brimstone Rock." Other uplifting titles include "My Narrow Mind," "Sac of Religion," "Black Lung" and "Hang My Teeth on Your Door." Lead singer David Eugene Edwards' doomsday caterwaul fits the subject matter but can be demanding on the listener. And the gloomy twang of the music aims at a pretty narrow interest group - say, sinister Bible salesmen in Flannery O'Connor stories or the Willem Dafoe character in a David Lynch movie. Put this on when you want visitors to go home. **
Diary of a Liar (Qdivision 1007)
Alternarock is full of good songwriters who can't sing a lick, and while that keeps their music from ever seeming as slick as a Celine Dion power ballad, it can still leave the listener wishing that the performance did justice to the melody. Fortunately, that's not a problem for Jules Verdone. Although the Boston-based songwriter clearly has a way with words, what makes "Diary of a Liar" so refreshing is that it's as tuneful as it is quotable. Even better, Verdone's dry, sardonic delivery prevents any hint of whining self-pity to slip into complaint songs like "Baltimore or Less" (about summer doldrums in her former hometown) and "Debt." All told, "Liar" is a debut to believe in. ***
'70s Party Classics (Rhino 75233)
Sometimes, the cover art says it all. Look closely at " '70s Party Classics," and you'll note the word "Killers" scrawled over "Classics" - right above the guy sticking his head through a vTC noose. That pretty much sums up the ambivalence most listeners will feel for this collection. Drawing from the dregs of the decade - "Billy Don't Be a Hero," "Torn Between Two Lovers," "Sometimes When We Touch"and so on - the song list alone is guaranteed to make music fans shudder. Yet,just as people can't help but stare at car wrecks, the very awfulness of the collection exerts a strange fascination. So even though it ought to clear the room at parties, don't be surprised if some guests actually like it. (No stars)
* = poor
** = fair
*** = good
**** = excellent
Pub Date: 3/12/98