Adams leaves pretensions unplugged

CD REVIEWS

December 11, 1997|By J.D. Considine Bebe Winans

Bryan Adams

MTV Unplugged (A&M 314 540 831)

Originally, the idea behind MTV's "Unplugged" concerts was to transform familiar songs by stripping them of their studio sheen, reducing the arrangement to just acoustic guitars and voice. These days, though, it's the artists who are being remade, using "Unplugged" to present themselves in a new light. So Nirvana emphasized angst over rage in its "Unplugged" session, while Eric Clapton used his to show that he didn't need a Stratocaster to be electrifying.

Bryan Adams' "MTV Unplugged" finds him attempting a much more modest bit of reinvention, as the veteran rocker does his best to sound like an old-fashioned singer/songwriter. It almost works, too, with the scaled-down "Summer of '69" coming across as a wistful remembrance of good times long gone, while the mandolin-flavored "Cuts Like a Knife" takes on a tenderness absent from the electric original. Even the rowdy "18 'til I Die" reveals unexpected depths, as Adams plays off the daring, dissonant string arrangement to turn the tune into an existential statement.

Naturally, not every Adams song is suited to this sort of rethink, and raucous, riff-driven material like "It's Only Love" is noticeably absent from the set list. Also missing is the treacly "Everything I Do, I Do It For You," perhaps because the original was already so low-key; instead, we get a slow, solemn stroll through "When You Love Someone" that uses strings and uilleann pipes to add gravity to the arrangement. It's more tasteful that way but doesn't quite make a silk purse out of that particular sow's ear.

Tellingly, it's the new material that shines brightest in these settings. Despite the string section, "Back to You" is delightfully unpretentious, blessed with a classic groove and a blissfully tuneful chorus, while the stripped-bare version of "The Only Thing That Looks Good On Me Is You" is infinitely superior to the original. In that sense, Adams' "Unplugged" seems more a fresh start than a total reinvention.

Bebe Winans (Atlantic 83041)

Gospel singers have been crossing over to pop since the days of Sam Cooke, but it has been a while since anyone did so as effectively as Bebe Winans does on his first solo album. "Bebe Winans" isn't entirely secular in its intent -- the album closes with a cover of the Edwin Hawkins classic "Oh Happy Day," and there's a solid spiritual component to such songs as "In Harm's Way" -- but there's an earthiness to Winans' delivery that brings real sizzle to his love songs. At his best, as on "So In Love" and the funky "Love's Coming," Winans conveys all the soulful charm of Luther Vandross, and that ought to give soul fans plenty of reason to shout hallelujah.

J.D. Considine

Usher

My Way (LaFace 26043)

Turn the radio dial to any urban R&B or pop music station and sooner or later you will hear the hypnotic "You Make Me Wanna," the first single from this 18-year-old's second release. Producers Antonio M. Reid, Kenneth B. "Babyface" Edmonds and Jermaine Dupree, along with Usher, have come up with a worthy mix of smooth R&B ballads like "Slow Jam," featuring Monica, and rap, including a hard-hitting duet with Lil' Kim called "Just Like Me." The music is catchy and the hooks are easy to follow. Although some of the lyrics are edgy and tough, there are times when they are weak. For example, one can' help but wince when, in the title song, Usher says: "I do/Any and everything you want to/Make your girl say ooh-ooh." Kind of profound, huh?

Lorena Blas

Richard Shindell

Reunion Hill (Shanachie 8027)

Folk singer Richard Shindell likes to assume multiple personalities. In "The Next Best Western" on his new album, "Reunion Hill," he's a desperate trucker searching for spiritual solace. In "May," he is an Irish fugitive telling his wife to buck up. In "Money for Floods," he is a destitute single mother, and in the title song, he is a mourning Civil War widow. Unfortunately, Shindell is not a quick-change artist, and his ballads are mostly heavy-handed and over-arranged. Once in a while, a promising glimpse of pure, intelligently wrought music emerges -- for example, in the lovely love song "Smiling." Otherwise, this effort is oppressively downbeat and unoriginal.

Stephanie Shapiro

Celtic Moods

Celtic Moods (Virgin 44951)

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