'All Saints' day is dawning

CD REVIEWS

March 12, 1998|By J.D. Considine Jazz George Howard

All Saints

All Saints (London 422 828 997)

In Britain, All Saints are considered the logical successor to the Spice Girls. Granted, this has more to do with their gender (feminine) and appearance (casually sexy) than with their sound, but then, that's the way British pop fans think it should be. After all, they're used to judging bands on the basis of their concept and collective personality.

Here in the States, All Saints will be seen as similar to the Spice Girls only by virtue of their nationality (English, though even that is a bit of a stretch, considering that two of the four are actually Canadian). Otherwise, calling the quartet "the new Spice Girls" will only confuse listeners - in part because the old Spice Girls are still around, but mostly because the two groups sound nothing alike.

In fact, if comparisons are to be made at all, All Saints would be more accurately likened to a cross between Eternal and the Mary Jane Girls. Like Eternal, All Saints combine the carefully honed discipline of a singles-oriented pop act with the perfect four-part harmonies of a hard-core soul group. And like the Mary Jane Girls, All Saints manage to seem deeply funky without ever coming across as particularly, er, deep.

If anything, the four seem almost to revel in their shallowness. For instance, when they perform the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under the Bridge," they don't even attempt to make the song theirs, much less extract some personal meaning from its lyric. Instead, they deliver it with all the enthusiasm and fidelity of the average MTV viewer - though, to be fair, it's doubtful that many MTViewers would sing along in four-part harmony.

"Lady Marmalade," the album's other well-known cover, is even more embarrassing. Not only are the Saints unable to match the sexy sass of LaBelle's original, but the group's attempt to put a hip-hop spin on the tune fails miserably.

In fairness, the fault there lies more with the track's overblown arrangement than with the Saints themselves. Unlike the Spice Girls, whose sound is too firmly grounded in pop to seem soulful, All Saints have a genuine feel for R&B and funk. It would not be difficult, for instance, to imagine TLC doing a tune like "Trapped" - though it's doubtful they would do it better than All Saints - and it's easy to hear the En Vogue influence in the tight, soulful harmonies that power "I Know Where It's At."

Simply put, these ladies can really sing. Unfortunately, what they sing seldom does their talent justice. Although the rhythm arrangements are much funkier than what's found on most Brit pop albums, they too often assume that a good groove can carry a weak song. Not so. If anything, the lack of memorable melodies ends up working against such funk-fests as "Beg" and "Alone."

Still, the fact that All Saints can pull credible performances from piffle like "Never Ever" - which is basically just "Amazing Grace" with a cheap new melody pasted on top - suggests that the group has yet to realize its full potential. Pair this group with a writer/producer on the level of Jermaine Dupri or Dallas Austin, and All Saints will truly be heavenly. ** Midnight Mood GRP (9902)

You really want to like George Howard's "Midnight Mood" because of his earnestness and his skill. Howard (pictured) attacks his soprano saxophone with a dedication and intensity that is absent from other, bigger-name soprano saxophonists, like, oh, Kenny G, for instance. But, unfortunately, none of the nine tunes is terribly compelling. Howard's artistry falls flat among rather pedestrian arrangements and lifeless melodies. One indistinguishable song just seems to meld into the next indistinguishable song until, by disc's end, what's missing is a listener's sense of connection to the music.

Milton Kent

Pop/Rock

Natalie Imbruglia

Left of the Middle (RCA 67643)

Like Lisa Loeb or Alana Davis, Natalie Imbruglia specializes in ingenue pop. For all the womanly warmth in her material, her voice is simply too light and girlish to sound fully grown. But that actually works to her advantage on "Left of the Middle." Imbruglia loves to inflate teapot tempests into emotional maelstroms, and while that has its advantages musically - she really struts her stuff when working dynamic numbers like "Big Mistake" - lyrically, such sentiment would seem silly from a grown-up. Fortunately, the words and music do at times work at the same level, as with the lovely, bittersweet "Torn," but on the whole, the album's strength is the pop confectionery of "Wishing I Was There" and "Don't You Think." ***

J.D. Considine

The Skatalites

Ball of Fire (Island Jamaica Jazz 314-524-420)

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