Dru Hill steps out of the R&B pack Review: 'Enter the Dru' feels like a winner for the harmony gig's freshest quartet.

October 27, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

If you went by the number of vocal groups on the R&B and pop charts these days, you might think we were in a sort of golden age for soul harmony.

Between Xscape and N Sync, Blackstreet and All Saints, 98 Degrees and Next, it's getting so you can barely turn on the radio without hearing some chorus or other set out in shimmering four-part harmony.

Trouble is, the only thing that distinguishes most of these acts is NTC the songs they sing.

Back in the '60s, it was easy to tell the Four Tops from the Temptations, or the Marvelettes from the Supremes; each had its own sound, its own style, its own attitude. Most of today's groups are utterly interchangeable, offering essentially the same sound content. For all we know, Silk and Next could actually be the same four guys recording under different names.

Thank God we've got Dru Hill to keep the other acts honest.

It isn't just that this Baltimore-based quartet has one of the most distinctive looks in R&B right now (thanks to Sisqo's shock of platinum-blond hair). Dru Hill also has a sound to match, blending its four distinctive voices in ways other acts could barely imagine.

Perhaps that's why the group sounds so fresh on its second album, "Enter the Dru" (Island Black Music 314-524-542, arriving in stores today).

Most harmony acts follow a fairly predictable formula when making an album. Start off with a half-dozen slow-and-soulful love songs, and toss in a couple rhythm numbers to keep the beat from seeming monotonous. Add a smattering of sex ditties for slow-dancing, then top it all off with an inspirational tune to prove that you're actually good kids at heart.

Dru Hill is having none of that, thank goodness. Instead, "Enter the Dru" starts off almost like a rap album, with a hokey action-film pastiche of voices in crisis mode, acting as if the only way to avert disaster is to "Enter the Dru."

"Real Freak" reinforces that tough-guy image with a combination of hard beats and powerhouse harmonies, surging from the speakers like a jolt of pure testosterone. This isn't sweet-and-innocent romance, but neither is it needlessly salacious; instead of the usual recitation of what the singers want to do and how, the Dru focus on the emotion, letting us share their sense of physical desire without drowning us in specifics.

In other words, what these guys do best is convey a sense of mood, and that's as true of the itchy, urgent "How Deep Is Your Love" as of the sweetly soaring "Angel."

It helps, of course, that the arrangements make excellent use of instrumental color, as with "This Is What We Do," which builds its melancholy groove around a piano hook swiped from the score of "Black Orpheus." There's also some nice use of aural drama on the album, as when "I'm Wondering" uses a woman's voice to answer the are-you-cheating-on-me? lyrics.

Mostly, though, it's the power of the singing that sets this album apart. Whether it's the naked pain of "You Are Everything" or the slow-building passion of "What Do I Do With the Love," these four can make the emotion in a love song almost palpable.

Granted, that's what harmony acts are supposed to do, but Dru Hill delivers the goods with such honesty and freshness that it all sounds new again.

'Enter the Dru'

What: "Enter the Dru" (Island Black Music 314-524-542), the new release by Dru Hill

Sun score: ***

Sundial: To hear excerpts from "Enter the Dru," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6122

Pub Date: 10/27/98

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