Lionel RichieLouder Than Words (Mercury 314 532...

CD REVIEWS

April 18, 1996|By J. D. Considine

Lionel Richie

Louder Than Words (Mercury 314 532 240)

Remember when the singer Lionel Richie most resembled was Barry Manilow? When his greatest strength seemed to be slow-'n'-sappy ballads such as "Three Times a Lady" and "Still"? Well, as "Louder Than Words" clearly articulates, those days are long gone. If anything, the singer he most often sounds like on these 12 tunes is not Manilow, but Marvin Gaye. From the funky, hypnotic groove of "I Wanna Take You Down" to the jazzy sophistication of "Lovers at First Sight," Richie evokes both Gaye's satin-smooth delivery and genre-jumping ambition. That's not to say he's being outright imitative -- though the verse to "Change" wanders awfully close to the cadences of "What's Going On" -- or that Gaye's influence is the only familiar chord the album strikes, as Richie is in Nat "King" Cole mode for the gentle "Nothing Else Matters" and even echoes the old gospel-based sound of the Commodores in "Don't Wanna Lose You." Instead, Richie has managed the difficult trick of broadening his sound without diminishing his appeal, meaning that not only is he convincing on rhythm-driven numbers like "I Wanna Take You Down," but ballads like the heartbroken "Can't Get Over You" rank among the best he's ever written.

"Weird Al" Yankovic

Bad Hair Day (Scotti Bros. 72392 75500)

All you have to know about "Amish Paradise," the first single from "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Bad Hair Day," is that it moves Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise" from the gritty streets of the ghetto to the horse-plowed fields of Pennsylvania Dutch country. If the basic idea doesn't get you giggling, odds are that the rest of the album will strike you as sophomoric and silly. Your loss. Even though Yankovic is sometimes sophomoric and silly -- "Cavity Search," his parody of U2's "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me," contains every dentist gag you've ever heard, some of them twice -- he can also be pretty smart. "The Alternative Polka," for instance, deflates tunes like "Basket Case" and Bullet with Butterfly Wings" better than any rock critic could, and when he turns "Lump" by the Presidents of the United States of America into "Gump" (sample chorus: "He's Gump, he's Gump/What's in his head/He's Gump, he's Gump/Is he inbred?"), he deftly kills two birds with one stone. They aren't all parody songs, either, as fully half the album consists of Yankovic originals, the best of which being the rampaging Christmas classic "The Night Santa Went Crazy" (". . . he tied up his helpers and he held the elves hostage/And ground up poor Rudolph into reindeer sausage . . .").

Rage Against the Machine

Evil Empire (Epic 57523)

Although a lot of pop groups like to play at politics, few ever take the kind of uncompromising stand Rage Against the Machine does on "Evil Empire." Rather than making swipes at easy targets like conservative windbags and corrupt evangelists, Rage's Zack De La Rocha keeps his focus on the bigger picture. "Bulls on Parade" brutally mocks the hypocrisy of conservatives who feel the best way to "rally round the family" is by increasing the killing power of the police, while "Without a Face" makes the point that it's hard to protect the economic rights of one group without denying the rights of another. Yet as thought-provoking (or argument-inducing) as his words are, the most explosive element on "Evil Empire" is the music, which blends the propulsive aggression of hip-hop and the sonic assault of hard rock better than any band around. Tom Morello's guitar work is itself worth the price of the album -- who else can move as easily from brutal crunch to airy atmospherics, to what sounds for all the world like a DJ's scratching? -- but he's only part of the equation, as drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Tim Bob provide a rhythmic foundation as awesome and inventive as anything Led Zeppelin did. An album that's revolutionary in every sense.

Alison Brown

Quartet (Vanguard 79486)

Could this be the golden age of banjo playing? After hearing what Alison Brown does on "Quartet," it's hard not to think so. Like fellow five-string virtuoso Bela Fleck, Brown trades the traditional bluegrass approach most Americans associate with banjo picking for something a little more adventurous. "G Bop," for instance, is every bit the be-bop outing the title implies, particularly Brown's fleet-fingered solo, and the effortlessly understated "Minding Rupert" is a delightfully laid-back exercise instrumental cool. Nor does Brown have any trouble transcending the expected boundaries of banjo playing, as "Mambo Banjo (Revisited)" has no trouble digesting the spicier aspects of Latin jazz, while "Without Anastasia" evokes the plaintive beauty and delicate tone of the Russian balalaika despite the title's painful pun. But Brown's greatest achievement may be to take a little of the twang out of the banjo's vocabulary, so that her playing on "The Red Balloon" and "Hello Mendocino!" seems as lithe and legato as any guitar solo. A stunning piece of work.

Pub Date: 4/18/96

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