Lisa Stansfield
Lisa Stansfield

The rock and R&B traditions have long made a fetish of privileging the new. Typically, critics praise the sounds that no one appears to have made before while dismissing as irrelevant any music that too obviously displays its rootsiness. The latest new sound perpetually dominates the sales charts, and on the rare occasions when retro music does break out, it's a sure-to-be-short-lived novelty. Consequently, rock and roll innovators are made into gods, but those who stick with a form long enough to perfect it and to explore its nuances are presented as, at best, charming disappointments and, at worst, sell-out embarrassments.

Thing is, though, much of the best "new" music out there is being made by artists who are behind the curve. Case in point: Lisa Stansfield. She may not be standing at the cutting edge of contemporary soul with Mary J. Blige, but she sure as hell makes better records. Hopelessly behind the times, Lisa Stansfield, the Brit's first release in six years, is a remarkable collection of back-in-the-day soul. With its punching horn charts, sweet strings and unmistakably catchy melody, "Real Thing," for example, sounds like a forgotten soul smash from 1975. "The Line" is Staples Singers funky, and "You Know How to Love Me" would've been state-of-the art disco 20 years ago.

Such a retro sound is only a liability if the songs and performance are subpar, and Stansfield's work here is anything but. Her song writing consistently bares the complexities of relationships teetering on the brink. And what's even more revealing are her always masterful vocals, whether she's singing about a love lost or found. Beginning with a pitiful and unconvincing "bye-bye," "I'm Leavin' " has Stansfield shaking off a man who's hurt her once too often. But when her voice cracks and gulps near the end (" 'Cause I really mean it this time / Oh baby, don't make me cry"), you fear she may never make it out the door. When Barry White sang "Never, Never Gonna Give You Up," you couldn't be certain if he wasn't just delivering a line to help him bed his latest conquest. But in Stansfield's version, the exuberantly purred promises are sexy and sincere in a way that's unmistakable.

The only moment here that's anything like contemporary is the closing "Footsteps." Combining the spare, acoustic setting of Babyface's "When Can I See You" and the arm-around-the-shoulder vibe of TLC's "Waterfalls," "Footsteps" is gorgeous and sounds almost new. If they're smart, Stansfield's label people will push "Footsteps" hard as the CD's next single. That's surely the only way to trick those stuck on the new into hearing the 13 even better, and older, sounding cuts that precede it. (****)

-- David Cantwell

Texas Chainsaw Orchestra
Texas Chainsaw Orchestra

The musical saw has a time-honored place in the novelty annals alongside the kazoo, the spoons and the jug. Played by variably bending the tool while bowing delicately across its smooth edge, the saw's wobbly tones work sonic wonders, especially on spooky tunes.

That's the acoustic saw, of course. Now, in a release as revolutionary as the day when someone first plugged in a guitar, comes a new dawn for the musical saw, courtesy of the Texas Chainsaw Orchestra. Using stock Stihl, Husqvarna and other brand-name chain saws as well as an array of garden variety power tools, the quartet of former UT students carve new territory with edgy versions of such classics as the Beatles' "Birthday" and the Sam Cooke soul standard "Chain Gang."

If the idea of rendering Dolly Parton's tender love ballad "I Will Always Love You" on chain saws (backed by a router, circular saw and washing machine) seems absurd or even offensive, consider that these guys have obviously worked hard to sharpen their skills and become the best on their instruments. As the killer live version of "Sabre Dance" proves, they've got the chops. (****)

-- Bob Burtman

My Soul
Tommy Boy

40 Thevz
Honor Amongst Thevz

Jesus had his apostles, King Arthur his Knights of the Round Table, Sinatra his Rat Pack. Throughout history, whenever iconoclasts surfaced in search of their true calling (though I hardly think Sinatra ever thought of it on that cosmic a scale; he was happy singing songs and shagging starlets), they've looked to the support of a small caravan of loyal backers. Hip-hop is no exception. It often seems every hot rapper has a crew of sycophants who want to share in their leader's quest for success. Problem is, when these minor armies spin off into their own projects, the results usually blow.

Enter Coolio and his trusty sidekicks, 40 Thevz. Coolio's been battling a bit of a street-cred backlash since the release of his 1995 sophomore smash Gangsta's Paradise, and with the new In My Soul he lashes out at his detractors. The disc may not be as note-perfect a commercial enterprise as Paradise, but it still bristles with irrepressible Coolio intelligence, empathy and pep. The CD's best moments are its funkiest. Those include "2 Minutes and 21 Seconds of Funk" (in which Coolio barks, "My name ain't Rick James / But I'll burn your ass with fire"), "Throwdown 2000" and "Let's Do It" (both as hysterical as they are propulsive) and "One Mo'," which cribs brilliantly from the Roger Troutman school of groove. As long as Coolio keeps exhibiting vibrancy and class of the sort that dominates In My Soul (what other rapper would sample Pachelbel's "Canon in D"?), bad-mouthing him will continue to be as trivial an exercise as sticking up for Hammer. (*** 1/2)

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