Remember when U2 was more a rock band than a high-tech concept? Come now, it wasn't that long ago. Think back to a simpler, more naive time, before a sound awash in experimental atmospherics; before the stage makeup, elaborate costumes, comical smirks and wrap-around shades. Specifically, think back to U2's mid-'80s period, with its ardent, quasi-militant anthems that today creak like the hinges of an old army foot locker. In those early years, the members of U2 were as serious about their future as they were about their politics. Even so, it's improbable that they could have charted their unlikely evolution from the flag-waving soldier boys of 1983's War into the suave sailors navigating the lush technoscapes and seductive repetition of their latest, Pop.

Much like its predecessor, 1993's Zooropa, a large part of Pop's appeal lies in its implied disposability, a fashionable detachment that must be chipped away in increments to get at the abiding message underneath. In essence, that message remains essentially what it has always been: the need to keep up the eternal search for the things that make life worth living -- love, sex, beauty, spirituality -- and how those things are sometimes found in the most unexpected places. "Take this tangle of conversation / And turn it into your prayer," sings Bono in one of Pop's few stolen moments of grandiose weakness.

While Bono has always been a sucker for bold universal truths, Pop leaves him scant room for overt grandstanding. Words are often reduced to mush when pitted against the samples, programming and general loop-happy expertise of producer Flood (who was also behind the boards on both Achtung Baby and Zooropa) and trip-hop guru Howie B (who teamed with U2 on its Passengers film soundtrack project). The band's overall performance is reduced to a mechanized hum, with any flashes of brilliance saved for the mix, which is where Flood in particular works his magic. Larry Mullen's drums are honed to a propulsively exact science; the Edge is adrift in a cyber-sea of special effects that make his instrument sound less like a guitar than like a small orchestra; and Bono, meanwhile, finds himself sparring with a barrage of overdubs and fuzzed distortion treatments. Everyone makes large contributions to Pop, but hardly anyone distinguishes himself in lengthy spurts -- and no one is above self-parody. For instance, an Edge guitar solo on the first single, "Discotheque," sounds like it's been fed through a kazoo.

Occasionally, though, Bono is called upon to imbue Pop with discernible doses of personality. As a singer, he continues to exhibit a remarkable command of his God-given instrument, still one of the most versatile and expressive ever in rock. Despite all the vast intricacies of the production, Pop's most memorable tracks -- namely "Staring at the Sun," "Last Night on Earth" and "Gone" -- are the ones in which Bono has the chance to exercise his vocal cords.

Fraught with self-doubt even as it's eased by a certain resolution of faith, Pop has the sound of a group struggling to grasp their humanity amidst the otherworldly realm of rock superstardom, even as they're led further and further afield from reality. All too often, Pop's distant feel emits the hollow, eerie cadence of a band transmitting from a planet other than Earth. "And a fucked up world it is too," observes Bono, edgy and sullen, on "Wake Up Dead Man," just before Pop's final transmission fades into space. Maybe so, but at least you can dance to it. (***)

-- Hobart Rowland

Various Artists
Mandela: Original Soundtrack

Few countries have as varied and rich a musical heritage as South Africa. The spiritual harmonies globalized by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the raucous street boogie of Zulu jive bands and the sophisticated jazz of such giants as Hugh Masekela mark only three points in a vast universe that continues to expand post-apartheid.

The newly released Mandela is subtitled "The Essential Music of South Africa," and if it fails to live up to the ultimate compendium such a claim implies, by wearing the hat that matches its actual identity -- soundtrack to a film about the life of South Africa's most notable citizen -- the disc succeeds as both backdrop and on its own. Interspersing short blips of original music (co-penned and played by Masekela) with vintage and modern selections, the soundtrack parallels the birth of the new South Africa, moving from a kind of innocent exuberance into a grim, more resolute phase and then emerging victorious in celebration, closing with "Black President" by pop star Brenda Fassie. In this context, the many sounds and styles missing from the collection seem irrelevant.

A cluster of jazz numbers from the 1950s and '60s provide the most insightful glimpse into the evolution of the nation as well as its music. Basing their sound on rhythms and harmonies borrowed from the West, the various bands experiment with localized melodies and vocals, turning them into what becomes a distinctly African model. Though the CD jumps rather abruptly into a tame version of a raised-fist African National Congress anthem before settling back into tribute mode, throughout it the fierce will of the South African people is expressed in lavish vocal arrangements. And the indestructible beat of Soweto rings loudly. (***)

-- Bob Burtman

Pat Boone
No More Mr. Nice Guy

By most measures, rock and roll is more than 40 years old -- meaning that at least two generations of performers have grown old as part of this young person's universe. Only a tiny percentage of those artists have aged gracefully: For every Neil Young or Marianne Faithfull, you can name a dozen Dave Masons or Grace Slicks. Moreover, there's no single right way to go about sustaining one's viability, as Pat Boone, who made his name during the late '50 and early '60s by releasing heavily bleached versions of rock and roll classics, demonstrates on his latest disc. Boone has spent most of the past 30 years as a grinning, even-tempered apologist for various right-wing Christian causes, but a couple of recent appearances on Politically Incorrect showed that he also possesses a quick and pleasantly self-deprecating wit. No More Mr. Nice Guy expands on this persona with purposefully dopey lounge versions of "Smoke on the Water," "Enter Sandman," "The Wind Cries Mary" and other paragons of heaviosity. The result is amusing, but not for very long: If you actually get to the end of Boone's "Stairway to Heaven," you're a better man than I am, Gunga Din. Still, those critics who insist that this platter is a bitterly cynical attack on popular music as executed by the man who figuratively gutted Little Richard would be well-advised to stop reading so much Dave Marsh. The CD, simply put, is a joke Boone is telling about himself -- and given the generally humorless state of popular music today, no gag (even one as thin as this) should be sneezed at. (**)

-- Michael Roberts

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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Bob Burtman
Michael Roberts
Contact: Michael Roberts
Hobart Rowland