Contrary to much belief, Mary Mary is rooted in pop

CD REVIEWS

May 04, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Mary Mary

Thankful (Columbia/C2 36740)

To refer to a recording as a "pop-gospel single" is, frankly, a left-handed compliment. Buried within that hyphenate is the suggestion that, although the song is actually pretty catchy, its status as a religious number will always supersede its value as musical entertainment. In that sense, the phrase "pop-gospel" is about as enticing as sweetened cod liver oil.

So let's get this straight from the start: Mary Mary is not a pop-gospel group. It's a pop group that happens to sing songs with religious lyrics.

And that, my friends, is a significant distinction.

Not that there's anything wrong, from a pop perspective, with singing straight-up gospel music. From Edwin Hawkins to Kirk Franklin, there have been a number of gospel singers who have crossed over to the R&B and pop charts without toning down their message or sound.

Of course, given the enormous debt that rock and R&B owe gospel music, it's no wonder that pop fans would find something familiar in these sanctified sounds. But while pop and R&B changed with the times, gospel has been slow to embrace musical innovation -- so much so that even Franklin's tame nods to hip-hop and funk have been denounced as sacrilege.

Mary Mary (singer/songwriters Erica and Tina Atkins) delivers an even more strongly secular sound than Franklin, but in an odd way, that's actually an advantage. Because where Franklin's albums come across like traditional gospel recordings with a few contemporary pop numbers thrown in, Mary Mary's "Thankful" sounds like an R&B album that just happens to mention Jesus a lot.

With its slinky beat and tight-as-a-drum harmonies, "Shackles (Praise You)" has more in common musically with the 702 hit "Where My Girls At" than with anything Shirley Caesar has recorded. Likewise, "Good to Me" comes complete with vocal harmonies by Destiny's Child, while the rap-spiked "I Sings" is so firmly grounded in the vocal inflections and groove of contemporary R&B that it almost comes as a surprise that the "he" the girls sing about is their savior, not their boyfriend.

That's not to say the group has no sense of gospel roots. After all, the only song on the album the Atkins sisters didn't have a hand in writing is the gospel oldie "Wade in the Water." But even this seems an appropriate choice, as pop listeners are more likely to know the tune from Ramsey Lewis' instrumental remake than from having heard the song in church. (And despite their churchy harmonies, Mary Mary treats the song as if it were a Caribbean funk workout, not a gospel tune.)

No doubt, there are some in the sacred music world who will sniff that Mary Mary is too worldly to be praised as a bona-fide gospel group. But judging from the sound of "Thankful," this duo isn't interested in preaching to the converted, and that makes the album a revelation, indeed.

* * *

Vince Gill

Let's Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye (MCA 088 170 098)

A lot of people in Nashville these days seem to think that country music can be either traditional or popular -- not both. Vince Gill would like to prove them wrong.

Even though the rhythm arrangements on "Let's Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye" are more likely to evoke the Doobie Brothers than the Stanley Brothers, Gill isn't out to make a Nashville rock album. Instead, he finds ways to fold traditional licks into contemporary grooves, so that songs like "Feels Like Love" and "When I Look Into Your Heart" can seem progressive without losing their link to the past. In that sense, the music he makes here seems almost the country equivalent of Bruce Springsteen's approach to roots rock, a parallel that's impressively audible in "Shoot Straight From Your Heart."

* * * 1/2

Medeski, Martin & Wood

Tonic (Blue Note 25271)

Mention the names Medeski, Martin & Wood, and what comes to mind is a quirky, semi-electric groove that seems an edgy update on Les McCann or Lonnie Liston Smith. But that's not the sound proffered on "Tonic." Between its disjointed rhythms and abstract harmonies, "Invocation" is far more likely to evoke the avant-garde sound of Andrew Hill or Jaki Byard than any soul jazz stylist. That's not to say the group has totally divorced itself from accessibility, for there are moments when its playing is firmly grounded in the pop vernacular, as on its cover of the rock classic "Hey Joe." But for the most part, this live set lets the trio range freely -- and generally to the music's benefit.

* * *

Air

Original Motion Picture Score to "The Virgin Suicides" (Astralwerks 48848)

Like a lot of European DJ outfits, the French duo Air has a definite weakness for the pretension of lounge music, and that's the sound that shapes the "Original Motion Picture Score to 'The Virgin Suicides.' " In fact, the group is so diligent in its attempts to invoke such vintage cheese that the soundtrack's main theme, "Playground Love," could almost pass for a relic of the '60s, thanks to its thrumming mellotrons, bleating saxophone, and Gordon Tracks' impossibly mannered vocal.

Not every selection sounds like a throwback -- the synth pulse beneath "Cemetary Party" winks at contemporary electronica, while the cool textures of "Dirty Trip" could as easily come from a Stereolab album -- but there's a strong enough sense of the past to make most listeners wonder if the album didn't tumble out of a time warp.

* * 1/2

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