Singing the praises of performers long on talent and short on recognition NO-HIT WONDERS

January 16, 1994|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Some people think that nothing gets a critic's goat more than seeing an album he or she has trashed sail to the top of the charts. After all, if you readers were paying attention, you'd know better than to buy such tripe, right?

But to tell the truth, most of us are bothered less by seeing bad albums succeed than by watching good albums go ignored. Why these discs don't get the attention they deserve hardly matters -- it could be that the music doesn't fit commercial radio formats, or that the promotions department gave up too early, or that the singer just has bad luck. Either way, pop fans are missing out on a good thing.

This, then, is an attempt to rectify that wrong, and point out some recent gems you may have overlooked. True, none of the albums here is a hit in the usual sense, but they definitely should not be missed.

Eleanor McEvoy

The term singer-songwriter implies a certain balance, that the artist is as much one as the other. Trouble is, most aren't -- either they write well but only kind of carry a tune, or they sing like birds while penning the most mind-numbing banalities.

Eleanor McEvoy, though, is one of those happy exceptions who not only writes beautifully memorable songs, but sings them with incomparable passion and grace. Scan through "Eleanor McEvoy" (Geffen 45352) and you'll find an embarrassment of musical riches.

That McEvoy knows how to write a catchy melody is obvious from the first bittersweet chorus of "For You," a song which, in a just world, would already be a Top-10 single. But her strengths don't stop there. "Leave Now," for instance, charges its urgent, melancholy melody with the sort of folk-rock verve John Mellencamp has been chasing for three albums now, while the singing on "Only a Woman's Heart" is so electric with anger, sorrow and resolve that McEvoy will have most listeners reaching for tissues by the song's end.

/# Not bad for a debut album, huh?

Sheryl Crow

With her wan voice and lean, unaffected delivery, Sheryl Crow sounds more than a little like a female Tom Petty. It also helps that she's able to evoke the story-telling ease of a singer-songwriter without giving up her sense of ironic distance, and that her voice maintains its unruffled cool no matter how hard she rocks.

But as good as the singing is, what really makes "Tuesday Night Music Club" (A&M 31454 0126) worth hearing are the songs. Her sense of melody is deliciously subtle, offering a near-perfect balance between narrative flow and melodic abandon, while her lyrics are full of telling details that immediately bring her characters to life. Songs like "Leaving Las Vegas," "All I Wanna Do" or "Can't Cry Anymore" are immediately intoxicating and totally addictive. It's enough to make you want to sign up for a lifetime membership.

John Martyn

There are times on "No Little Boy" (Mesa 79057) when John Martyn gets the sort of jazzy groove going that would make Sade swoon, and times when his music has enough pop effervescence to make Sting seem stuffy. And when Martyn digs into a heartbreak ballad like "I Don't Wanna Know," he touches on emotions so deep and resonant that it's easy to understand why Phil Collins so admires his work.

So why isn't this guy a big star? Beats me. Given the soulful strength of songs like "Just Now" -- as good a song as anything Steve Winwood's written lately -- or "Sunday's Child," you'd think he'd have the adult contemporary market eating out of his hand. Until that happens, though, the pure pop appeal of "Ways to Cry" (one of several duets with Collins here) and the jazzy sophistication of "Solid Air" will likely remain private pleasures.

Michael Brook

Apart from the occasional jazz gem, solo guitar albums are usually about as exciting as watching paint dry. Some players put all their energy into showing off for other guitar wonks (yaaaawnnnn!), while others indulge themselves in an hour's worth of electronically treated noodling (zzzzzzzzzz). Either way, a one-way ticket to boredom.

Yet the solo performances Michael Brook presents on "Live at the Aquarium/London Zoo 21 May 1992" (4AD 45444) are anything but sleep-inducing.

Granted, there are some quiet moments here, like the lovely, soft-focus "Ultramarine," but Brook never lets the low dynamics turn his playing into aural wallpaper; there's always a strong sense of melody and structure to the music.

It helps, of course, that these "solo" performances often find him playing to pre-recorded rhythm loops or synthesized backing tracks. But what carries the album has less to do with Brook's instrumentation than with his compositional sense, for the best moments here -- like the long, sweeping crescendo in "Lakbossa" or the swirling, kora-like arpeggios in "Cascade" -- deliver all the drama and dynamism of orchestral music. A real gem.

Cassandra Wilson

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