Some divas are more divine than others

CD REVIEWS

October 15, 1998|By J.D. Considine Christian Kirk Franklin

Celine Dion, Gloria Estefan, Aretha Franklin, Shania Twain and Mariah Carey

VH1 Divas Live (Epic 69600)

Are we in the midst of a diva devaluation?

It certainly seems so. Everywhere you look, somebody is being hailed as a diva. An Entertainment Weekly cover story recently listed some 31 different kinds of divas - and didn't even touch on the world of operatic divas (Maria Callas was, by most accounts, la diva de tutte dive).

But the strongest proof that we're facing a diva glut is "VH1 Divas Live." Drawn from a concert produced by the cable channel, "VH1 Divas Live" puts Celine Dion, Gloria Estefan, Aretha Franklin, Shania Twain and Mariah Carey on the same stage and lets 'em try to raise the roof.

Or so goes the theory. In practice, "Divas Live" is surprisingly demure. It doesn't help that some of pop music's most famous divas are conspicuous by their absence - where are Whitney Houston, Tina Turner and Linda Ronstadt? - or that some of the featured divas are included more in deference to their fame than in recognition of their pipes.

Estefan, for example, is entertaining and personable, but frankly, the rhythm section throws more sparks than her vocals do. A star, yes; a diva, no. Likewise, though Twain is clearly blessed with a strong, clear voice, her vocal style is too song-oriented and constrained to qualify as diva-like. She may need an ego infusion before assuming the mantle of divahood.

Dion, on the other hand, definitely deserves the Big D. Not only does she muster enough lungpower on "My Heart Will Go On" to raise the Titanic, but she charges through "River Deep, Mountain High" as if out to prove that she, and not Turner, should have done the original.

Franklin's claims to divahood are unquestioned, and the fact that she dominates the two all-diva extravaganzas at the album's close shows that even her colleagues defer to her gifts (and for good reason, given the power she musters on the gospel raver "Testimony"). But the album's greatest surprise comes from Carey, who not only offers an admirable mix of attitude and ability on "Make It Happen" but actually holds her own against Franklin on "Chain of Fools."

So the final score for "VH1 Divas" is three out of five - a winning average, but just barely. ** The Nu Nation Project (Gospo Centric 90178)

Some Christians apparently believe that there's too much secular appeal in Kirk Franklin's music to make it a good way to spread the gospel. But no matter how much his reliance on pop stars and funk beats might be criticized as Christian ministry,

TC there's no faulting it as entertainment. With "The Nu Nation Project" Franklin broadens his approach significantly, drawing on everything from Bill Withers (in "Gonna Be a Lovely Day") to P-Funk (quoting "One Nation Under a Groove" in "Praise Joint"), while still maintaining a hefty quotient of traditional gospel/soul material. The star cameos are all crammed into the slow, saccharine "Lean On Me," but where else are you likely to hear Bono and R. Kelly on the same track? **1/2

J.D. Considine

Jazz

Fred Hersch and Bill Frisell

Songs We Know (Nonesuch 79468)

Jazz duets demand a sense of connectedness, and Fred Hersch and Bill Frisell have that in spades on "Songs We Know." It isn't just that Hersch's lean, slightly angular piano style fits perfectly with the warped lyricism of Frisell's guitar; listening to the two run through such standards as "It Might As Well Be Spring" or "Yesterdays" is like listening to a single mind play two instruments. Instead of the usual pattern of soloist and accompanist, Hersch and Frisell practice a form of simultaneous improvisation that obliterates the line between leader and follower. So there's an easy blurring between harmony and melody in "Wave," and an almost contrapuntal feel to the interlocking lines in "Softly As In a Morning Sunrise." ***

J.D. Considine

Pop/rock

Keith Sweat

Still In the Game (Elektra 62262)

Keith Sweat was a leader in the new jack swing movement, updating R&B singing with rap rhythms, so it shouldn't come as a shock that his new album, "Still In the Game," finds him working with the likes of Snoop Doggy Dogg, Too $hort and Erick Sermon. What is surprising is how easily Sweat maintains the balance between the two elements. When Sweat and Snoop team up for "Come Get With Me," the chemistry between them is as powerful and relaxed as on Snoop's early sides with Dr. Dre, while "Love Jones" boosts its groove by treating the rapping and the singing as equal elements. Moreover, apart from some tepid ballads, the non-rap numbers are just as strong, from the funky "Too Hot" to the slammin' "Rumors." ***

J.D. Considine

Pub Date: 10/15/98

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