Chris Whitley
Terra Incognita

Chris Whitley's 1991 debut, Living with the Law, is some of the finest driving music ever made. Impossibly atmospheric and superbly moving, Law draws your focus away from the centerline and into scenescapes as vast, detailed and dust-caked as a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western. Even though Whitley never claimed to be a blues purist, Law poignantly captured the genre's wanderlust in its purest form -- and it was a tough act to follow.

So rather than scrambling to come up with a worthy successor in the same vein, the onetime Houstonian took a defiant turn on his next outing: If Law was the ultimate road companion, then 1995's Din of Ecstasy was the perfect music for jackhammer operators. Noisy and electrified, Din was a stone-cold shocker -- not to mention uniformly awful.

Now, on the new Terra Incognita, Whitley appears to be rethinking his heavy-rock strategy. Where Din wailed away with clumsy abandon, Terra's porous, acoustic/ electric layers bob, weave and echo with discretion, saving space for Whitley's melodies and his bottleneck work on electric and National steel guitars. In the rare instances where Terra repeats Din's experiments with jet-engine feedback and numbing repetition (as on "Clear Blue Sky" and "Gasket"), the wind-tunnel clatter doesn't persist for long. Whitley even allows himself to get downright funky on "Aerial" with an ass-swaying chord progression that alludes to mid-'70s Stevie Wonder.

The most glaring evidence of Whitley's toned-down attack, however, is "Automatic," Terra Incognita's first single and an infectious exercise in pop-music restraint that's the closest he's ever come to flat out radio fodder. The song is almost catchy enough for me to forgive its boneheaded prose (a choice low: "Don't ask me for directions / I'll offer you no infections"), though that does tend to fly by harmlessly when wrapped in Whitley's callused journeyman warble.

In the end, the twaddle that Whitley tries to pass off as beat poetry is my only quibble with Terra Incognita. But seeing as how the music speaks so powerfully, a little rhymed mumbo jumbo is hardly the end of the world -- or a career. (*** 1/2)

-- Hobart Rowland

Tony Toni Tone
House of Music

Though I consider myself a firm opponent of retro-obsessed music that lacks new ideas, even the most fervent crusader for modernity and originality must grant amnesty in special cases. In the case of most R&B, which has been too long in an over-slick and formulaic rut, a little reverence for its proud past is exactly what's needed. And that's why I'd venture to dub Tony Toni Tone's decidedly old-school House of Music the most noteworthy soul release of the last year.

Of course, it's not much of a stretch to proclaim Tony Toni Tone the best R&B band around. In some sense, it's the only truly authentic R&B band of this era, seeing as most of the rest are merely vocals-only groups backed by sappy harmonies and sterile instrumental tracks. Like 1993's Sons of Soul, House of Music is a variety show of classic references, though with a foot firmly planted in the present. The styles of many of the greats peek through the curtains: There's Al Green's heavenly swoon on "Thinking of You," Earth, Wind and Fire's steady sway on "Lovin' You," Curtis Mayfield's bluesy fret work on "Still a Man" and the Temptations' Motown stroll guiding the direction of "Don't Fall in Love." Still, when the moment's right, Tony leader Raphael Saadiq doesn't hesitate to employ the hip-hop production of DJ Quick, his own playful rapping, a smattering of acoustic guitar or even some heated New Jack crooning, just to prove he can beat modern R&B kingpins such as Babyface at their own game. (****)

-- Roni Sarig

Kevin Mahogany
Kevin Mahogany
Warner Bros.

Jazz fans already know that Kevin Mahogany is one of the greatest singers in the world, and with any luck, this major-label debut will alert rock, soul and blues audiences to that fact as well. His trio of earlier Enja label albums were hard-core jazz affairs that, following in the tradition of grand vocalists such as Billy Eckstine and Mel Torme, were filled with impeccable versions of jazz and pop standards by everyone from Charlie Parker to Rodgers and Hart.

Kevin Mahogany, though, expands that old-school conception of the Great American Songbook to include rock and soul as well, and the addition pushes Mahogany -- who grew up loving soul and gospel, not just jazz -- to his greatest moments yet. Mixing jazz phrasing with church testifying, he tackles Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin'," James Carr's "Dark End of the Street," Stevie Wonder's "I Never Dreamed You'd Leave Me in Summer" and Al Kooper's "I Love You More than You'll Ever Know," filling each with a subtlety and dynamic that post-New Jack soul has long lacked -- and with an emotionalism that's been missing from too much jazz for decades. His performance of Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" is as gut-wrenching as anything released in months.

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David Cantwell
Hobart Rowland
Roni Sarig