Mellencamp strips down for 'Dance Naked'

June 24, 1994|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic


John Mellencamp (Mercury 314 522 428)

Although John Mellencamp made a big deal a few albums ago about not wanting to be a "Pop Singer," the truth is that most of his albums in recent years have been too slick for their own good. Not "Dance Naked," though. Blessed with a sound that's lean and feisty, the album boasts the same sort of raw charm that animated Mellencamp's early work. Granted, that stripped-down approach also tends to make the singer's failings more apparent, from the obvious musical debts (Lou Reed, Keith Richards) to his occasional caddishness (just try using the title tune as a pick-up line sometime). But when his strategy succeeds -- as it does with his remake of Van Morrison's "Wild Night" or on the hard-rocking "The Big Jack" -- the results rank among his best work in ages.


Aaliyah (Jive 41533)

It's easy to understand what made Aaliyah's debut single, "Back and Forth," such a smash -- not only was it powered by a sinuous and insinuating rhythm loop, but Aaliyah's silky-smooth delivery gave a convincing sensual undercurrent to the tune. Unfortunately, neither she nor producer R. Kelly are able to sustain that kind of chemistry for the duration of "Age Ain't Nothing But a Number." Aaliyah's singing is stunning when she has something of substance to work with, as her cover of the Isley Brothers' oldie "At Your Best (You Are Love)" makes plain. Too often, though, the songs she's given offer only the sketchiest of melodies, something that makes the album seem overlong and monotonous. And though the title tune's intentions are no doubt well-meaning and romantic, it's hard not to feel at least a little uneasy with its so-what-if-I'm-jailbait? sentiment.


Manu Dibango (Giant 24566)

Long before there was worldbeat, there was Manu Dibango, whose steamy, insistent "Soul Makossa" was an unexpected and influential (Michael Jackson quoted it in "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' ") R&B hit in the '70s. So it ought not come as too great a surprise to find that the guest list for Dibango's new album, "Wakafrika," includes such luminaries as Peter Gabriel, Sinead O'Connor, Youssou N'Dour and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. What is an unexpected pleasure is that the album's star-power doesn't blunt the raw-edged appeal of the Cameroonian saxophonist's sound. So even though the stylistic range includes everything from the gently percolating pulse of "Biko" to the Afro-Caribbean throb of "Jingo," to the hip-hop-inflected griot groove of the title tune, there's never a sense that the music has been watered-down or compromised.


Channel Light Vessel (Gyroscope 6607)

Let's be honest: A supergroup is only as super as the music it makes. So even though Channel Light Vessel draws on such name talent as Roger Eno, Bill Nelson (BeBop Deluxe) and Kate St. John (Dream Academy), the music it produces for "Automatic" is bland enough to have been the work of rank unknowns. Instead of generating the sort of low-key intensity that makes ambient music such a pleasure, what we hear has all the textural complexity of art rock with none of its dynamism. Worse, when the band goes from the vaguely edgy ("Testify" or "Ballyboots") to the quietly tuneful ("Train Travelling North" or "Bubbling Blue"), a vapidity sets in that leaves the album sounding like little more than background music with pretensions -- and there's nothing super about that.

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