Faith Hill breathes new life into her crossover success


November 25, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Faith Hill

Breathe (Warner Bros. 47373)

It would be nice to think there was more to country-to-pop crossover success than mere luck.

After all, Shania Twain has managed to maintain impressive commercial momentum over the last couple years as her current album, "Come On Over," attracted a steady flow of fans from the pop/rock mainstream. Nor is Twain the only country star to court Top-40 success, as acts ranging from Tim McGraw to the Dixie Chicks have made their mark on the pop charts.

For the most part, however, making it in the mainstream is less a matter of talent or direction than of having the right song at the right moment.

That was the case for Faith Hill last year, when the catchy, ebullient "This Kiss" landed her in the Top 40 and kept her there for several months. And given the fact that her follow-up album, "Breathe," entered the Billboard album charts at No. 1, there's every reason to hope that Hill will do even better this time around. Indeed, from the guitar-driven stomp of "What's In It for Me" to the whispered quiet of "That's How Love Moves," "Breathe" is as satisfying an album as anyone in Nashville has produced this year.

But without wishing to seem greedy, the album nonetheless left me wanting more. Hill is a tremendous talent, and on this album she comes across like the sort of student who can earn straight-As without breaking a sweat -- even though she's doing well, deep down you know she can do better.

For instance, what other country singer would be canny enough to cover Bruce Springsteen's "If I Should Fall Behind"? Even better, Hill is also smart enough to cut the song on her terms, offering her own take instead of trying to imitate the original.

Still, if Hill has such confidence in her own vision, why then does "Love Is a Sweet Thing" seem so much like paint-by-numbers Shania Twain? As with the over-sold chorus to the title track, Hill sounds as if she's trying so hard to sound pop that she forgets to be herself.

Fortunately, such flaws are relatively few. "I Got My Baby" fuses R&B and country with an ease Wynonna never quite managed, while "Let's Make Love" is a genuinely sexy number that never sounds cheap or lascivious (something helped in no small part by the fact that it's done as a duet with Hill's hubby, Tim McGraw). Even the slightly silly "Bringing Out the Elvis" manages to balance fannish excess with a well-honed sense of the absurd.



Jessica Simpson

Sweet Kisses (Columbia 69096)

Like Mariah Carey, Jessica Simpson is the sort of singer who can move easily from a whisper to a roof-raising holler. Like Whitney Houston, she likes to exploit the dramatic potential of each melody to the fullest. And like Christina Aguilera, Simpson uses her big voice to convey youthful innocence. But though there are a lot of other singers in Simpson's sound, there's precious little sense of her own personality in "Sweet Kisses." Packed with power ballads and produced to within an inch of its life, the album is like an action flick that's all special effects and no plot, making a big noise but going nowhere. So even if you're dazzled by the diva-esque theatrics of "I Wanna Love You Forever," stick with the single -- it's as deep as Simpson gets.


Dave Matthews Band

Listener Supported (Bama Rags/RCA 07863 67898)

Everybody knows the Dave Matthews Band made its name on the road, so it ought not be surprising that three of Matthews' last six albums have been concert recordings. What's impressive is how different the live discs like "Listener Supported" are from his studio albums. Some of that variance is due to onstage energy, as with the spacious, leisurely groove given "Pantala Naga Pampa," or the extra-itchy edge given "Two Step." At other points, the added instrumentation is the key, as when the keyboards pump up the groove in "Too Much" or the backing vocalists add an extra dimension to "Stay." In each case, though, the fact that the band is able to bring fresh energy and insight to such familiar fare explains why so many are willing to hear this band again and again.


Beastie Boys

The Sounds of Science (Grand Royal/Capitol 22940)

Traditionally, retrospective albums focus on a specific aspect of a band's existence -- hits, history, lost recordings or the like. With "The Sounds of Science," the Beastie Boys do pretty much all of the above. Spreading 42 tracks across two CDs, the collection offers a little bit of everything in no particular order. That lack of chronology won't be a problem for those used to the random-play aesthetic of CD changers, but anyone hoping to put the Beasties' career into focus will have a hard time understanding why the 1989 hit "Hey Ladies" is sandwiched between the punk-era "Egg Raid on Mojo" and the recent "Intergalactic." But if all you want is a sense of just how broad the Beastie aesthetic can be, it would be hard to top this set.



End of Days

Soundtrack Album (Geffen 069490508)

If an actual brand-new song by Guns N' Roses is enough to convince you that the world is coming to an end, you're the perfect audience for the soundtrack album from the apocalyptic thriller "End of Days." With selections by Korn, Limp Bizkit, Prodigy, Eminem and Creed, the album's lineup looks like a who's who of heavy music. But even though the Bizkit throws down imaginatively in "Crushed," Korn crunches ominously through "Camel Song," and Eminem sounds badder than ever on "Bad Influence," GNR's darkly churning "Oh My God" remains the album's highlight. Not only has the band successfully updated its sound, mixing a measure of industrial menace into the old blues-based hard rock, but singer Axl Rose sounds better than ever, scraping the walls with his razor-edged howl. As someone once said in another movie, "They're baa-aack. . . ."


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