MTV Unplugged NYC 1997 (Epic 68779)
He may be the most successful writer and producer of the decade, but Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds has yet to become an equivalent force as a pop singer. By rights, "MTV Unplugged NYC 1997" should make up for a lot of that. After all, not only could he sing his big solo hits, but the "TV Special" aspect of the production would allow him to offer his own rendition of songs he wrote for others.
Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work out like that. Sure, the album includes versions of the hits he wrote for others, but they aren't quite the solo showcases his fans would expect. "Breathe Again," for instance, is sung by Shanice Wilson, whose showy soprano entirely misses the dusky charm of Toni Braxton's version, while "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)" finds Babyface's unexpectedly meek performance totally overshadowed by Beverly Crowder's aggressive vocalizing.
Crowder, though, is positively selfless compared with Stevie Wonder, whose contribution to "How Come, How Long" so completely upstages Babyface you'd think Edmonds was a guest on his own record. Even the medley of Boyz II Men hits misses, as both "I'll Make Love to You" and "End of the Road" are offered in choral arrangements, thus minimizing Babyface's contributions.
Fortunately, Babyface does at least stake a claim to a few songs. His wonderfully understated run through "Change the World" leaves the Eric Clapton version seeming slightly pallid -- though it probably doesn't hurt that E.C. is on hand to offer the guitar solo. And Babyface's wicked read of "Whip Appeal" definitely outdoes the original.
But given the number of hits he's written, why are there only a dozen songs here? How come solo successes like "Tender Lover" aren't included? And if this is supposed to be an "Unplugged" show, what's Clapton doing on electric guitar?
Reload (Elektra 21262)
There are several ways to take the title of Metallica's new album. "Reload" could be a gun metaphor, or read as a reference to "Load," the band's last album. More fitting, though, would be to take it as computer slang and assume that Metallica knows the stylistic shifts it attempted with "Load" didn't take, and must be reinstalled. The band has gotten some of the bugs out, abandoning the boogie licks that littered "Load" and emphasizing the thrash elements in "Fuel" and "Prince Charming." But "The Memory Remains" and "Carpe Diem Baby" are cluttered with cliche, the electro-effects on "Slither" sound like bad ZZ Top, and "The Unforgiven II" adds little to the original. Maybe they should call the next album "Reboot."
Levert -- Sweat -- Gill (East West 62125)
With Johnny Gill, Keith Sweat and Gerald Levert in the lineup, LSG ought to be a soul harmony supergroup, having more vocal power than the average choir. So why does "Levert Sweat Gill" seem less than the sum of its parts? Blame the writing for some of it. "Door #1" has a great lover-man groove, and "You Got Me" nicely balances smooth harmony singing with a thumping Puff Daddy pulse, but "My Body" and "Let a Playa Get His Freak On" have more in the way of attitude than hooks. Still, biggest problem is that LSG seems more like three soloists than a group, and while that makes for exciting competition on the likes of "My Side of the Bed," it makes a muddle of other tracks.
Tibetan Freedom Concert (Grand Royal/Capitol 59110)
To rephrase a familiar saying, the road to bad albums is paved with good intentions. So even though the triple-CD set "Tibetan Freedom Concert" is full of good karma and great bands, it ends up a drearily disappointing live album. To be fair, there are some breathtaking performances here, including Radiohead's piquant "Fake Plastic Trees," Bjork's otherworldly "Hyper-Ballad" and U2's ineffably beautiful "One." There are also some delightful small-scale numbers, including Noel Gallagher doing a solo version of "Cast No Shadow." But the bulk of the offerings, from the Foo Fighters' "This Is a Call" to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones' "Noise Brigade," are sloppy and unfocused, offering more enthusiasm than accuracy. Guess you had to have been there.
El Corazon (Warner Bros. 46789)
Steve Earle may still spend time in Nashville, but he's no more a part of the country music establishment than Woody Guthrie was. But that's probably for the best, as it would be hard to imagine a Music Row regular delivering anything as harrowing and heartfelt as "El Corazon." A genuinely political album, "El Corazon" pulls no punches in its view of the world, slamming small-town racists and big-time politicians with equal daring. But rather than turn each tune into a polemic, Earle frames his politics in terms of real people, humanizing the issues as Guthrie did. As a result, it's hard not to be moved by the strong stories and gritty, roots-rock feel he builds into "Taneytown," "Telephone Road" and "The Other Side of Town."
Freek Funk (NovaMute 3041)