Celine Dion
These Are Special Times
Sony 550 Music

Having spent 15 years in both the French Canadian pop ghetto and the adult contemporary star machine, Celine Dion is a survivor. But more than that, she's a revolutionary. No, really: When she entered the drive-at-5 pop world in the early '90s, she came to rescue a dying genre. Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler had moved into film, while Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston were still spinning their singles to younger crowds. So while Dion doesn't know much about vocal phrasing, she knows market niches, and the AC Radio Diva role was one she happily filled -- with her big voice, her big-name duets and her big damned song for that big damned movie about that big damned boat.

None of which has anything to do with talent, a minor point anyway when you own 25 or so platinum records. Dion approaches the love song the way punk rockers approached their instruments -- if you can't do it well, at least do it loud and cover your tracks. Dion doesn't hit notes; she body-checks them, and years of growing sales have only made her more confident about getting louder. That's enough to validate the existence of her Christmas album, These Are Special Times. Since Dion sings in essentially two modes -- Whispery Warble and Jet Takeoff -- she has a knack for making even the most subtle holiday tune end as if it were the 1812 Overture. That's not an absurd concept when it comes to "Ave Maria," but when she attempts "O Holy Night," which wasn't exactly written as a showstopper, she tries to bury it in voice the way a punker uses feedback. "Noël, damn it," the overwrought intensity of the song seems to suggest. "Noël!"

The ostentation becomes increasingly clear on a misbegotten stab at John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," as well as the synth-happy originals concocted for the project. Dion's at her best when she hires ringers who are attuned to her booming voice: The album includes duets with professional loudmouths from Andrea Bocelli to R. Kelly, and she's enlisted adult contemporary tune commandos like Carol Bayer Sager and Diane Warren to come up with the appropriate lines to belt out. And while it's hard to criticize her for enlisting her family to sing backup on two tracks, making sure that her voice gets mixed up top isn't exactly in the spirit of giving.

-- Mark Athitakis

Cry, Cry, Cry
Cry, Cry, Cry
Razor & Tie

Isn't the point of kicking off your songwriting career that you won't have to spend your set singing other people's songs?

Three folksinger/songwriters on the way up -- Dar Williams, Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky (the woman who sang with Shawn Colvin but decided she wanted to be a psychologist, then decided she didn't) -- are touring to promote Cry, Cry, Cry, their new album of folk songs they didn't write.

Kaplansky and Shindell both have great voices, and maybe it was a good idea for them to start singing other people's songs. Their albums weren't as rocking and wonderful as Williams's; hence she gets top billing.

But this album was a bad idea. It's like a Best of Broadway compilation where all the songs sound pretty -- but they don't sound right.

The song that disappoints me most is the one I was most excited to hear. It's "I Know What Kind of Love This Is," off the Nieldses' first album, Gotta Get Over Greta. In an edgy, angry voice Nerissa Nields slowly, deliberately sings, "I know what kind of love this is / after all I was there when we made it." It's a song with a bitter, bitchy, fuck-you-don't-give-me-this-shit tone aimed at the asshole dumping her. It's not a harmonized barbershop quartet, but Cry, Cry, Cry sings it as a sleepy lullaby. (And it's not like they even tried to make it their own. They sing it in Nerissa Nields's off-key voice; they just take away her passion.)

The warm fuzzy feeling critics have for this album is that it gives exposure to obscure folkies who wouldn't be heard by the noncappuccino crowd. Whatever -- it's not tough to find these people. Williams herself has become compilation queen. She's on the New Folk Generation album, she's on Hempilation 2, she's on the Christine Lavine tribute album, she's on the Lilith Fair album -- it's not hard to hear her. Especially since last year's release, End of the Summer, was supposed to be her big crossover into the mainstream (she has a video on MTV). As for this album, Cry, Cry, Cry's first single is "Fall on Me" by R.E.M. Real obscure, guys.  

Williams's other albums offer anthems for fucked-up, educated, not-so-happy women in crummy relationships, women who love men who leave them or men they haven't met. She doesn't write about shiny happy subjects, but she writes them with a positive, Prozac-pace. For instance, "What Do You Hear in These Sounds?" is an upbeat tune about being in therapy, putting together the jigsaw pieces of her past: "When I talk about therapy, I know what people think / That it only makes you selfish and in love with your shrink / But oh, how I loved everybody else / when I finally got to talk so much about myself."

Cry, Cry, Cry takes the same unhappy, life-sucks subjects, but it lacks the overriding we're-going-to-make-it message of Williams's other albums. This disc iss depressing. Not depressing in an uplifting, reassuring, wow-someone-else-feels-as-empty-lost-and-lonely-as-I-do way. Just plain depressing. The songs are sad, the songs are sung to be sad, and I wanted to fast-forward through them all.

-- Wendy Grossman

Actions and Indications

It can take lot out of a band when they get released from a recording contract. Tacoma's Seaweed were at the tail end of the glut of bands who jumped from Sub Pop to the majors in the grunge years. In 1995 they released their fifth album and major label debut for Disney's Hollywood Records and then disappeared until now, resurfacing on another credible small label, Merge. As the world has turned away from the sludge and bludgeoning of grunge, so has Seaweed, whose members seem to be getting smarter as they age. They still walk the line between the Stooges, Soul Asylum and '80s postpunk (as the inclusion of their version of Joy Division's "Warsaw" points to). But nearly a decade after getting together the band has lessened its love of metal riffs in favor of more complex songwriting and strong melodies.

The guitars are crunchy while the vocals are delivered behind a sheepishness that makes them all the more enticing. Actions draws in listeners while delivering thick meatiness to sink teeth into. Somewhere in the odd space between melodic grunge bands and the off-kilter time signatures and avant-guitar of bands like Jawbox and Fugazi, Seaweed roars when it has to but most often stays just below full throttle. This ability to keep things barely reined in pays off in a big way on the two-minute blare of "Red Tape Parade," which seems to hint at the troubles the band had with Hollywood ("Lost in litigation / I don't wanna wait no more"). The urgency and anger come across in the crisp tempo, but by keeping the guitars in perfect time and not letting them get sloppy, the members seem like wounded veterans, not like whiny punks bitching about "the man." Smart guitar rock without irony or stupidity is a valuable commodity -- invest here.

-- David Simutis

Faith No More
Who Cares A Lot? The Greatest Hits

My favorite bar of all time had Faith No More's note-for-note replication of the Commodores' slow-dance anthem "Easy" on the jukebox. On more than one occasion, I played it over and over, to the dismay of most of the other patrons, who didn't think it was funny. There have been lots of people who didn't get the jokes of Faith No More: the live, flopping fish in the video for their breakthrough song, "Epic"; the pictures from the slaughterhouse in artwork of their Angel Dust record; calling their final studio recording Album of the Year. In the 16 years that the San Francisco funk/metal band was together, the members wrote balls-out songs and still took the piss out of themselves more often than they needed to.

All of the jokes, such as "Easy" and a less faithful cover of the Bee Gees' "I Started a Joke," are included here. The first single, "We Care A Lot," with first proper singer Chuck Mosley (Courtney Love did time before him), made fun of rock stars championing humanitarian causes, with an amalgamation of hip-hop, metal and progressive rock. Those three genres were touchstones for the band from then on. The only big hit FNM had was "Epic," from 1989's The Real Thing. Rooted in Billy Gould's slapped bass, Mike Patton's rapping and operatic metal singing, and huge guitars, the song is undeniable, even ten years after its original release.

Other than "Easy" and "Epic," the best parts of Who Cares? are from 1992's Angel Dust. "Midlife Crisis" and "A Small Victory" temper The Real Thing's frothing anger with a sense of doom and confusion. "Midlife" employs a sample-laden, drum-machine-fueled bridge, certain to confuse Nirvanamaniacs in those pre-Beck days. Now, it would be right at home alongside Tricky's remixes of Bush.

-- David Simutis  

Various Artists
Beleza Tropical 2
Luaka Bop

When David Byrne's Luaka Bop label released the first Beleza Tropical compilation a decade ago, Brazilian music was just beginning to show up on the radar of world music lovers in the States. The disc sold 350,000 copies and reintroduced North Americans to giants like Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Jorge Ben. This year marks the tenth anniversary of Bryne's Luaka Bop label, and Beleza Tropical 2 is part of the label's celebration.

The first Beleza Tropical contained a pleasing variety of styles but played it safe by presenting artists who already had some name recognition in North America. Beleza 2 takes more risks, presenting work by artists largely unknown outside Brazil. Os Paralamas is a rock band but a bit heavier on the rhythm than most U.S. rockers. Its "Nao Me Estrangue O Dia" is a frothy pop confection that combines hip-hip and dance-hall reggae with Brazilian doo-wop harmonies. Chico Science and his band Naço Zumbi called their music "mangue," a hybrid of folk forms that they mixed with rock, rap and heavy metal. Science was killed in a car accident last year, but his "Rios, Pontes & Overdrives" shows rap's multirhythmic potential and makes his loss seem even more tragic. The irresistible groove of "Batuque" gives Daniela Mercury, one of Brazil's most popular young vocalists, something solid to work with, producing a performance with a spunky fire that was missing on her American compilation of crossover tunes (read: tired pop arrangements). Beleza 2 also has some inspired moments from the usual suspects -- Gil, Veloso, Margareth Menezes, Marisa Monte and Tom Ze -- as well as an unusual rockabilly samba from Moleque De Rua.

-- j. poet

John Gorka
After Yesterday
Red House

Singer/songwriter John Gorka has always explored life with a dark eye and a slyly humorous touch. On After Yesterday, however, he seems more full of life than ever. Though it may be inconceivable to his fans, some of these songs actually seem happy. The difference in his life is that he's now married and has a small boy, and it has shaped his songs in ways that were impossible in the past. He's broadening his musical palette, too, with tunes like the freewheeling "Cypress Trees" and the bright, almost tropical title track. Gorka's ability to strike to the heart of a situation shines through on the stark, brooding "When the Ice Goes Out" and in the breathtaking wordplay of "Wisdom." His humor is here in abundance, especially on "When He Cries" -- a song about his son, who "looks like Charles Bronson when he's crying / He doesn't have the mustache but he's trying" -- and on an ode to "the patron saint of consciousness," "St. Caffeine." After Yesterday, a return to the Minnesota independent label that released his first album, marks a turning point for Gorka. He has grown as a tunesmith while remaining true to his folk roots and maintaining his remarkably keen eye for the fine details of life.

-- Jim Caligiuri

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