It is a rare day indeed that brings new releases by chart toppers Garth Brooks, Jewel and Mariah Carey. We're all ears.

THE STARS ALIGN

November 17, 1998|By J.D. CONSIDINE | J.D. CONSIDINE,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

The weeks before Thanksgiving are traditionally a busy time for the recording industry, as big stars race to get new albums out in time for the Christmas rush. But today's slate of new releases is so star-studded that industry pundits have already dubbed it "Super Tuesday." Among the biggest stars coming out today are Garth Brooks, whose "Double Live" recaps his 1997 Central Park concert; Jewel, who follows up her septuple-platinum debut with "Spirit"; and Mariah Carey, who celebrates her string of chart-topping hits with "#1's." Also out today is "My Love is Your Love," Whitney Houston's first non-soundtrack album in eight years. Copies of Houston's album were not available at press time; look for a review in tomorrow's Sun.

Garth Brooks

"Double Live" (Capitol 97424)

Sun score: ** 1/2

Garth Brooks is a genuine pop-culture phenomenon. And he should be -- he certainly works hard enough at it.

Not content with being the biggest star in country, Brooks wants to go down as the most popular recording artist in history. Already, sales of his album catalog are ap- proaching those of the Beatles, and with the release of "Double Live" (Capitol 97424, arriving in stores today), he comes one step closer to surpassing them.

For Brooks' fans, this is thrilling news. Country music may be celebrated as the sound of the American heartland, but it runs a poor second to rock and soul on the pop charts. So even though Brooks' albums routinely sell in the millions, his success has been discounted by much of the music press as "merely" a

country phenomenon.

The release of "Double Live" may change that. Recorded (for the most part) during Brooks' record-breaking 1997 concert in New York's Central Park, Brooks hopes that this double-CD set will sell a million copies in its first week of release, passing the 960,000 mark set by Pearl Jam's "Vitalogy" in 1994.

But as much as that sort of marketing ambition may help Brooks prove that he's under-valued as a pop star, such relentless focus on sales and chart records is enough to make you wonder: Garth, what about the music?

"Double Live" ought to be about the breadth and depth of Brooks' catalog. Its 25-song set list includes 17 country chart-toppers and ranges musically from the hoe-down energy of "Rodeo" and honky-tonk grit of "Friends In Low Places" to the pop passion of "Shameless" and the gospel- fueled uplift of "We Shall Be Free." It should, in short, incorporate everything that has made Brooks the success he is.

And yet, with few exceptions, the performances on "Double Live" rarely rise above the perfunctory. To his credit, the playing is remarkably clean, though how much of that is actual performance and how much was fixed in overdubs is anybody's guess (the album credits 23 musicians, somewhat more than were seen onstage).

Either way, the music evinces more polish than passion, as Brooks seems more interested in playing off the crowd's enthusiasm than in taking the music to another level.

There are exceptions, of course. "Long Neck Bottle" swings a little harder, thanks to guest Steve Wariner's acoustic guitar, and "Ain't Goin' Down ('Til the Sun Comes Up)" takes on an almost Skynyrd-style ferocity as Brooks and his band push the tune to its limits.

But on the whole, "Double Live" stands mainly as a monument to Brooks' desire to be the biggest and best-selling country artist ever. Which is a shame, really. Because in his obsession to break as many records a possible, Brooks is slowly turning into the Michael Jackson of country music.

Worst of all, he seems to be doing so at the expense of his own creativity. When he was building his audience, Brooks released new albums on a regular basis. These days, though, he seems more interested in exploiting his catalog -- both through "Double Live" and "The Limited Series" boxed set -- than in broadening his repertoire. Here's hoping that next year, he spends less time chasing records and more time making them.

Sundial: To hear excerpts from Garth Brooks' new release, "Double Live," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the code 6196. For other local Sundial numbers, see the directory on Page 2B.

Jewel

"Spirit" (Atlantic 82950)

Sun score: *

Lord knows, Jewel means well.

Speaking about her new album, "Spirit" (Atlantic 82950, arriving in stores today), the 24-year old singer/songwriter told Billboard, "I wanted to write a record that was an antidote to all the things that made me worry in the world, so that it's comforting somehow."

There's no doubt that "Spirit" will do just that for those fans who looked to Jewel's first album, "Pieces of Me," for solace and insight. It's chockablock with sensitive, acoustic ballads, comforting songs about love and caring, injustice and cruelty, and the quest to become a more spiritually aware being.

Everyone else, "Spirit" will likely "comfort" into a coma.

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