Mary J. Blige
Share My World (MC 11606)
What makes a great soul singer? Younger listeners tend to think it has to do with vocal agility and the ability to stitch an ornate filigree around the basic fabric of melody. Older fans, by contrast, feel it has to do with emotional grounding -- the sort of gospel-schooled testimony that makes a singer's every statement seem heartfelt and believable. That Mary J. Blige is equally adept at both goes a long way toward explaining why "Share My World" is such a satisfying album. Between the guest rappers on "I Can Love You" (featuring Li'l Kim) and "Love Is All We Need" (which relies on Nas), and the sinuous, snaky vocal lines she spins in the likes of "Round and Round," there's no mistaking Blige's hip-hop roots. But that's not the only flavor found here, for Blige is just as at home with the album's old-school numbers. "Missing You," for instance, boasts a slow, churchy melody worthy of Aretha Franklin, and Blige not only rises to the occasion but shines, adding luster to the tune's tale of longing and regret. Then there's "Not Gon' Cry," which sounds as fresh and powerful here as it did on the "Waiting to Exhale" soundtrack. And with "Everything" and "Searching" adding an element of retro-R&B appeal, "Share My World" becomes the sort of album any soul fans of every age would be happy to share.
One More Time (Arista 18965)
Thanks to its thumping, synth-driven beat and smoothly anonymous vocals, Real McCoy's music is considered post-disco dance music on this side of Atlantic. But in Europe, what this German trio offers is treated more like straight pop, a view which seems much fairer to the songs on "One More Time." Sure, the songs are often relentlessly rhythmic, driven by a bass drum pulse that pounds like a headache, but there's more to the material than that. For starters, these aren't just beats with hooks added on, but actual songs, blessed with enough harmonic complexity and melodic logic that the best would stand up even without rhythmic support. Moreover, singers Vanessa Mason and Lisa Clark avoid the diva-style histrionics of much dance music, opting instead for a style that's almost ABBA-esque in its simplicity. So what comes across in the likes of the title tune, "Take a Look at Your Life" or the reggae-flavored "Give a Little Love" has less to do with club-style propulsion than with the pure pop pleasure of a memorable melody, making Real McCoy a genuine pop sensation.
Passion Dance (Almo Sounds 80014)
Although Herb Alpert's latest release, "Passion Dance," is dedicated "to all the Tijuana Brass fans" who ask him when he's going to make another TJB album, it isn't exactly a return to form. After all, the TJB sound was modeled on mariachi music, and had a strong Mexican flavor, while the tunes on "Passion Dance" take their cues from the percussive approach of Afro-Cuban music. But even though the ingredients are different, the recipe remains the same. As with TJB, Alpert takes a pop approach to the material, pouring his efforts into arrangements that emphasize the melody while keeping improvisation to a minimum. That's not to say he and his sidemen don't stretch out from time to time, but even when soloing, Alpert's playing is always tuneful and direct. As hummable as the songs are, though, it's the rhythmic component that gives the album its identity, as it's the clanking cowbell and fluttering timbales that put the spark into melodic firecrackers like "Creepin' " and "Slinky."
MTV's Amp (Astralwerks/Caroline 7550)
Because MTV has thrown its considerable weight behind the burgeoning "electronica" movement, it's no surprise to see the channel's imprimatur on a dance music collection. What makes "MTV's Amp" interesting, though, is the kind of dance music it features. Named for MTV's late-night electronica show, "Amp" is packed to bursting with techno and trip-hop, including such obvious selections as the Chemical Brothers' incendiary "Block Rockin' Beats," Underworld's shimmeringly intense "Pearl's Girl," and the Future Sound of London's wonderfully volcanic "We Have Explosive." But as much as the Amp collection emphasizes the pop side of this movement, it doesn't restrict itself to such fare. So we also get the gritty Chemical Brothers remix of Prodigy's thumping, tribal "Voodoo People," the itchy kineticism of Josh Wink's "Are You There," and the adrenalized overload of Atari Teenage Riot's "Sick to Death." "MTV's Amp" may not be a perfect overview of current club culture, but it's a solid enough introduction that it ought to enlighten novices without annoying the scene's old hands.