Finding his own sounds

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Sean Lennon

Into the Sun (Grand Royal/Capitol 94551)

Never mind the name.

It doesn't matter that Sean Lennon has one of the most famous bloodlines in rock, being the son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and the subject of such songs as Lennon's "Beautiful Boy." However much such celebrity might account for interest in Lennon's debut album, "Into the Sun," what makes the album worth hearing isn't the degree to which the 22 year-old sounds like his parents, but the fact that he mostly sounds like himself.

So let's get the obvious comparisons out of the way first. Yes, his tart, expressive tenor has a similar timbre to his father's. Yes, his songs sometimes get as noisy and experimental as his

mother's. Sure, the psychedelic gingerbread built into the arrangement of "Queue" owes more than a little to "Magical Mystery Tour"-era psychedelia, and phrases like the grammar-bending tongue twister, "to loose the blues I choose to flew the coop" (from "Mystery Juice"), sound very, well, Lennonesque.

But to be honest, it would be easy to find similar influences in the work of any young, Beatle-bred rocker. What's interesting about "Into the Sun" is how much of its sound doesn't come from such predictable sources.

"Home" is a case in point. A beautiful bit of musical melancholy, it augments its dreamily tuneful verse with sweet, subtle vocal harmonies, and lush, soft-focus instrumental textures (chiming vibraphone, ghostly slide guitar). But its chorus, though similarly melodic, takes on a different feel entirely, offering an almost contradictory blend of power and finesse, as Lennon's distorted guitar crunches in overdrive beneath the breathy vocals and fluffy mellotron flutes.

"Into the Sun" is awash in such sound play. Songs move from loud to soft and from playful to ferocious with unexpected ease, while the instrumental textures draw on everything from lo-fi, natural sound to heavily processed studio effects. No doubt much of that is the work of Cibo Matto keyboardist Yuka Honda, Lennon's producer (and girlfriend), but the album is hardly Cibo Matto sound-alike. Instead, what Honda brings to these songs is the sense that, sonically, anything could happen. And quite often, it does.

"Mystery Juice," for instance, ambles from a lean and tender intro (just Lennon's voice and bass in heartbreaking counterpoint), through a strummy, singer/songwriter section and into a punk/thrash guitar break worthy of Smashing Pumpkins. It keeps going, too, covering as much stylistic ground in its five-and-a half minutes as an art-rock epic. Then there's "Photosynthesis," a long, horn-spiked instrumental stew flavored with Latin, jazz and funk influences. It's nothing like anything else on the album, yet it fits perfectly.

Still, for all his ambition and adventurousness, Lennon's greatest strength is his gift for melody. Even though these songs make no obvious concessions to pop marketability, they're catchy nonetheless, drawing the listener in through sheer songcraft.

It's hard to argue with melodies as endearing as these, from the lithe, fluttering chorus to "Breeze," or the lulling beauty of the samba-style title tune. There's even a likely hit single here, thanks to the sweet, soulful "Two Fine Lovers," a song that not only offers a sly wink to '70s disco but paints a warm, appealing portrait of young hearts in love.

With material as enjoyable as that, "Into the Sun" would be worth hearing even if the singer's name were Sean Rodriguez. ***

Jazz

Sonny Rollins

Global Warming (Milestone 9280)

Sonny Rollins has always had a commanding tone, but there's something especially awesome about his sound on "Global Warming." Sure, his tenor sax surges from the speakers on these quartet and sextet sessions, but what makes this sonic show of strength all the more impressive is how relaxed his playing is. Granted, we expect that of calypso-inflected numbers like "Island Lady" and the title tune, where his incisive phrases bring such lightness to his big, breathy tenor that his phrases seem to skim the rhythm like stones skipped across a pond. But even straight-ahead workouts like "Mother Nature's Blues" convey such a sense of ease and confidence that you may not notice how brilliantly constructed his solos are. *** 1/2

Pop/rock

Natalie Merchant

Ophelia (Elektra 62196)

Epic rock was commonplace in the '70s and '80s, when everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Genesis brought a cinematic sweep to their music. But it seems a tad too effusive for the '90s, which is why it's unusual to find an album as unabashedly opulent as Natalie Merchant's "Ophelia." Not only does she outfit her songs with tragic tales and dramatic detail; she also gives them music to match, packing the album with soaring melodies, swelling strings and stirring crescendos. Yet as broad as the sound of "Life Is Sweet" or "Break Your Heart" may be, there's nothing oversized or extravagant about the songs, while the groove beneath "Kind and Generous" moves so easily you barely notice how big the arrangement is. ***

Simply Red

Blue (EastWest 62222)

Mick Hucknall has always been a crooner at heart, and the soulful caress of his vocals has always been one of the best things about Simply Red. So it shouldn't be too great a surprise to find Simply Red applying a quiet storm approach on its new album, "Blue." What's interesting, though, are the songs Hucknall brings to the project. It's one thing to find him riding a gentle funk groove on the title tune, or assuming the soulful reggae cadences of Gregory Isaac's "Night Nurse." But his Marvin Gaye-like take on the Hollies' "Air That I Breath" is wonderfully audacious, while his take on Neil Young's "Mellow My Mind" is nothing short of inspired. ** 1/2

Soundtrack

The Last Days of Disco

Music from the Motion Picture (Work 69102)

After more than a decade of '70s revivalism, putting together a worthwhile all-disco soundtrack ought to be a piece of cake. It doesn't take much thought, after all, to pack "The Last Days of Disco" with such of-course-you-need-them oldies as Cheryl Lynn's "Got to Be Real," Amii Stewart's "Knock on Wood" and Michael Zager's "Let's All Chant." But it's pretty savvy of the soundtrack's producers to add in such recently sampled oldies as Diana Ross' "I'm Coming Out" (the source for Notorious B.I.G.'s "Mo Money Mo Problems") and Sister Sledge's "He's the Greatest Dancer" (which powered Will Smith's "Gettin' Jiggy Wit' It"). And India's '90s remake of "I Love the Nightlife" is the perfect compliment to Alicia Bridge's original. ***

Pub Date: 5/28/98

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