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NOVEMBER 30, 1998: 

*** Whitney Houston

MY LOVE IS YOUR LOVE

(Arista)

You may be surprised to hear My Love Is Your Love touted as Whitney Houston's first new album in eight years. After all, Houston has been delivering new singles to radio throughout the '90s, including the megahit "I Will Always Love You." But like all of the actress/singer's post-'90s recordings, that tune was merely part of a soundtrack. My Love Is Your Love does feature one film tie-in: the overwrought Mariah Carey duet "When You Believe" (also heard on one of the three Prince of Egypt soundtracks and on Carey's new #1's). Yet the rest of this album finds Houston plugging into contemporary R&B currents with the help of some of today's "hottest producers" -- Monica/Brandy hitmaker Rodney Jerkins, Fugees Wyclef Jean and Lauren Hill, Missy Elliott, Babyface -- rather than soundtracking. In a sense it's her return from the sacred (her 1996 pop-gospel soundtrack The Preacher's Wife) to the profane, from the church to the street, with Jerkins (the architect of "The Boy Is Mine") putting words in her mouth about cheating men on the percolating "It's Not Right But It's Okay" and setting up a guarded seduction on the hip-hopping "If I Told You That." Not to mention Elliott, who throws a few "ho's" into "In My Business." Houston doesn't write her own songs, so there's no point in dissecting the lyrics for clues about her personal life. But the performances are so effortlessly convincing that it's hard to resist the temptation.

-- Matt Ashare


** Vanessa-Mae

STORM

(Virgin)

Electric-violinist Vanessa-Mae is only 19 years old (and on Virgin Records, ha ha), but her three-million-units-sold-already put her in that rare category: classical music that people actually buy. She wears wet T-shirts in videos despite coming from Singapore, where people get caned for less. And she scores a major conceptual coup on her new album by covering back-to-back Donna Summer's techno-loop prototype "I Feel Love" and Focus's yodel-metal operetta "Hocus Pocus," probably the two most eccentric Eurorock-rooted hit singles of the '70s.

Otherwise Storm amounts to lots of wanking (if that term can still apply to adolescent girls) and wheedling -- this is showoff music, like drum solos or drum 'n' bass or bluegrass or Yngwie Malmsteen, with way too many notes. To her credit, Vanessa is far from a purist, and eagerly eclectic in her quest for beauty: jazz-fusion spyrogyrating, French-perfumed flamenco seduction, geometric Bach fugues. But only at its giddiest does this prodigy's string recital feel truly audacious -- "(I) Can, Can (You?)," a speed-jigged electronic can-can dotted with girl-giggled pheromone-releasing phonemes, is bizarrely infantile bubblegum, and it cracks me up. I don't want a wet-T-shirted teenage violinist with good taste; I want one who tastes good.

-- Chuck Eddy


*** Mr. Airplane Man

MR. AIRPLANE MAN

(self-released)

Combining the dark mystery of backwater Mississippi blues with the energy and attitude of snarling punk rock is the kind of accomplishment that deserves a record contract. But Mr. Airplane Man's debut EP is a self-released affair, cut live in the studio, with half its tracks recorded by Morphine's Mark Sandman -- a guy who knows his deep blues.

And this local duo do go deep. Margaret Garrett plays slide guitar with the authority of a budding musical visionary and sings like the tortured-soul(mate) of Jessie Mae Hemphill (or Howlin' Wolf). Tara McManus plays drums as through she'd been born in the Delta or Chicago -- 70 years ago. She's mastered a roiling style of working the kit that predates rock, driving songs with a loose martial rumble akin to African-American fife-and-drum music. So traditional numbers like "Jesus on the Mainline" (which benefits from their beautifully aching harmonies) and Wolf's "Moanin' for My Baby," and traditional-sounding originals like the growling "Baby," "My Hand" and "Rain So Hard" all seem as old as the atoms that began the universe. Or voodoo. Because this young band's combination of trance beats, reverb, and arrangements works its own distinct psychedelic magic.

-- Ted Drozdowski


*** Mariah Carey

#1's

(Columbia)

"This is not a greatest-hits album! It's too soon. I haven't been recording long enough for that!" writes Mariah Carey in the liner notes, though #1's certainly walks and quacks like a duck. Rather, she says, this is a "thank you" to the fans who have given her an astounding string of 13 #1 hits, all present here. Which means those fans will already own all but the three new tracks on this CD: "When You Believe" (the duet/duel with Whitney Houston) and two unmemorable examples of Carey's patented dreamlover/fantasy/hero reveries.

The tracks are actually presented in reverse chronological order, so that, starting with grandiose, mildly hip-hop-inflected showstoppers whose dense arrangements frequently upstage Carey's chirping, they seem to devolve toward comparatively spartan and pure showcases for her honeyed lower register -- though spartan isn't really the right word for someone who never sings one or two syllables when she can hover melismatically around seven or eight. As a career retrospective, #1's shows Carey, like Houston, to be a singer with an astonishing gift muted by risk-averse songwriting, gloppy production, and the singer's own showboating as a substitute for genuine expression of soul.

-- Gary Susman


*

VH1 DIVAS LIVE

(Epic)

Here's Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin, Shania Twain, Gloria Estefan, Celine Dion, all in concert. Plus a guest appearance by Carole King, who joins Dion singing "The Reason." As the solidest sender in today's pop -- powerful in songs of excitation like "River Deep, Mountain High" and sturdy in "My Heart Will Go On," the sentimental dreamsong in which she sings romance larger than life -- Dion provides the CD's most credible diva moments. And Shania Twain, transcending the lightweight pop of "You're Still the One," powers "Man! I Feel like a Woman" with all the force a diva must summon.

But the rest of these 14 performances fall flat, and worse. At least Carey's aimless technicalities and Estefan's uninspired disco merely disappoint their slim reputations. Aretha Franklin stumbles grotesquely, almost clownishly, through "Chain of Fools," bumbling aside the bird-boned Mariah Carey. And wouldn't you know that when the song finishes, the other divas shout, "All hail the queen of soul!" As if they were reading Franklin's epitaph.

-- Michael Freedberg


* Linda McCartney

WIDE PRAIRIE

(Capitol)

Given the unhappy circumstances, this is as about as bad you'd have to expect. Covering 25 years, it's meant to be Linda's musical legacy and last testament, but mainly it's a reminder of husband Paul's ability to make musical silk purses in his sleep. At its best, Wide Prairie sounds like Wings at their worst: willfully inconsequential, decked out in candy-colored arrangements, mildly annoying. And despite the proficient dressings, it's hard to tell whether the originals are good, because (it must be said) it isn't only that Linda McCartney wasn't a professional singer, she wasn't a very good amateur one either. Songs meant to be defiant -- "I Get Up" and "The Light Comes from Within" -- are merely flat-footed; "Cow" and "The White Coated Man" feed the unkind suspicion that vegetarians are a little ditzy. A few desultory covers -- not that a song like "Sugartime" can actually be made worse -- round out the set. It's an unfortunate curio, asking our indulgence in a manner that gives off the sickly sweet odor of marketed grief.

-- Richard C. Walls


*** King Radio

MR. K IS DEAD, GO HOME

(Tar Hut)

Not many folks really get the roots-rock/power-pop connection, but there's a generation of musicians out there who are old enough to have heard the Raspberries, the Stones, and the Band played back to back on the radio, and young enough to have jumbled them all together in their heads at the time. Bands who combine these influences and get it right, like Velvet Crush, are typically and unjustly rewarded with commercial failure, but that's not stopping Boston's Tar Hut label. Its fifth release, Mr. K Is Dead, Go Home, is by Northampton's King Radio, the brainchild of former Scud Mountain Boy Frank Padellaro (guitar/vocals).

Produced by sometime Lilys member and Pernice Brother Thom Monahan, the disc is built on the creative tension between Padellaro's McCartney-via-Monkees melodies and weepy slacker ballads and the storm-and-twang of bassist/vocalist Jim Smola, with whom Padellaro shares songwriting duties. Although the disc shoots off in enough directions to make your head spin (delicate orch-pop horn arrangements give way to garage-rock dirge), all of King Radio's tunes have one thing in common: solid songwriting delivered in three minutes or less.

-- Meredith Ochs


** Cher

BELIEVE

(Warner Bros.)

Cher's ascendancy as a dance-music diva (via remixed singles) hasn't kept her from filling her albums with one crappy ballad after another. But this time around, beat junkies won't have to seek out the dance remixes for their rhythm fix. Even though her latest CHR battle plan is as programmatic as ever, with 10 songs averaging in length at 4:40, a river of friendly house grooves runs through it. Which makes it her most consistent album in years, maybe even ever. But I ask, would you rather have Prefab Sprout's Paddy McAloon scripting a spaghetti-western ballad for her the way he did on 1996's It's A Man's World, or schlockmeistress Diane Warren diffusing her rays of light here?

For all her obeisance to electronica trends, Cher apparently still won't (can't?) shake her dependence on song doctors. That reliance meant you could usually expect at least one track per album to catch you off guard. Here, however, the club-bound uniformity ensures that all we'll remember is the banal gestalt of the thing. In other words, Believe has about as much import and utility as a Rozalla album. On second thought, maybe beat junkies should seek out the dance remixes.

-- Kevin John



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