Spice Girls (Virgin)
Four years ago, Spice Girls brought girl power and their perky brand of pop to the international charts with "Spice." They followed that with "Spice World," the disc and the movie. And then they took a break, and were reduced to a four-piece with the departure of Geri Halliwell.
The question is whether the four Spices can regroup, literally and figuratively, at a time when Britain is grooving to the new sounds of "garage" music, and other teen bands have come forward.
The answer is a qualified "yes." The group's first single, "Holler," leads off the 11-track disc, and has already made No. 1 in the UK. With a new image (all dressed in black on the cover shot; no more being called Scary or Posh) and cool producers (Rodney Jerkins and Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis), the Spice Girls have produced a disc that is expertly crafted with a plush, pop luster.
The downside is that the songs themselves have few distinguishing features.
The more uptempo tracks breeze along happily enough with harmony vocals on the choruses, but have no edge. On the groovily titled "Get Down With Me," or "Wasting My Time," the Girls waste time with bland dance tracks.
And even when the production provides a nicely funky backbeat on "If You Wanna Have Some Fun," it's impossible to take seriously such lyrics as "Wink wink, nudge nudge," their echoes of Monty Python taking the song from sexy to silly.
The ballads are better. The Spice Girls can sing, and on songs like "Let Love Lead The Way," "Oxygen," and the standout "Weekend Love" that has more mature (and thankfully less self-referential) lyrics, they have a certain appeal.
But that appeal is mitigated by the several references to the band's name through the disc, and the mission statement of a song "Right Back At Ya" that includes the line "We started a trend that they all imitated/A new generation of Spice we created."
Well, yes, they did. Now there are dozens of boy and girl bands. And the Spices rightly see both that they were instrumental in creating the trend, and that the trend may have passed them by.
"Forever" is competent, and, at times, attractive. But ultimately it may not be what their fans want - what they really, really want.
- RICHARD PATON
FRESH AIRE 8
Mannheim Steamroller (American Gramaphone)
Sylvania native Chip Davis has done it again with what he says is the last of his Fresh Aire series. It's the epitome of New Age music, mixing light and intricate electronic sounds with pop and classical influences. Davis's compositions and core group get an added boost from the London Symphony Orchestra on these eight songs that he bases on topics of infinity. The previous seven in the series were gold sellers, and there's no reason to think this will sell any less.
- KEN ROSENBAUM
THE LITTLE MERMAID II: RETURN TO THE SEA
Various Artists (Disney)
Big orchestration and well-conceived game plans are hallmarks of Disney productions. This "Little Mermaid" sequel, with a light tone targeted for kids, is no exception. Samuel E. Wright, the voice of lovable calypso crab Sebastian, does a credible job of making a children's song out of the 1964 standard, "Iko, Iko," and gives a Caribbean twist to another oldie, "Hot, Hot, Hot." With eight songs and less than 30 minutes of music, the disc is a little thin and doesn't take many chances. It's cute, but it's no "Lion King." Then again, few soundtracks are.
- TOM HENRY
Looking for a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day? Pop in Gabrielle's feel-good CD, and lose yourself in the moment. Light and airy, Gabrielle doesn't bedazzle you with overpowering vocals. She can hit the high notes, but shattering glass is not her claim to fame. Her voice complements the music, which is packed with melody and sing-alongs among the 11 tracks. It's good, clean fun - finger-popping pop music with a touch of classical soul. Get out those sunglasses.
- JOHN HARRIS
BRAND NEW ME
John Michael Montgomery (Atlantic)
With ballads and rave-ups alike, Montgomery can manhandle a good song and make it something special with his deep, resonant voice. Fortunately, there are many such numbers on this album. The title track opens with some sizzle and, except for one or two slow cuts that kind of just lie there, most numbers deserve repeated playing. The kickers seem to bring something new to the party, while most of the smooth stuff has warmth and a positive feeling. The first single, "The Little Girl," a short story of biting truth, has rocketed up the charts
- KEN ROSENBAUM
OVER THE YEARS
Abbey Lincoln (Verve)
Lincoln has developed a storytelling vocal style which, on her new CD manages to carry a world-weary feeling that is picked up by her regular trio and is passed along to a couple of wailing jazz stars, tenor saxman Joe Lovano and trumpet player Jerry Gonzalez. Half of the tracks are written by Lincoln and these are the best things on the disc. Where she stumbles is in covering popular music, including a version of "Windmills of Your Mind." Here, her voice seems to lack the range penned by the composers and the attempts by Lovano and the other musicians to play around her end up as a muddied jumble.
- LARRY ROBERTS
John Prine (Oh Boy)
The idea is brilliant, the execution is perfect, and John Prine's new release is the ideal place to discover a true original. For the disc, Prine went into a Nashville studio and re-recorded 15 of his own songs. In the process he updated a body of work that is as strong as that of Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen. The session found Prine in fine voice and the song selection and arrangements are inspired. It's all here for a Prine fan - "Sam Stone," "Hello In There," "Donald and Lydia." The fresh recording is a wonderful way to update his body of work. And for the uninitiated, this is where to start.
- ROD LOCKWOOD
GURU'S JAZZMATAZZ STREETSOUL
On his third Jazzmatazz project, rapper Guru gives us his interpretation of soul music, and in doing so has produced some of the best work of his already distinguished career. He has solicited some of the top artists from the hip-hop and R&B genres to lend the their talents to the project, and his use of these popular artists gives the disc a very hip and today feel. The sound is a fusion of hip-hop, jazz, and R&B, with the emphasis more toward R&B. Slower-paced tracks such as "Guidance," featuring Amel Larrieux, show that Guru has not lost the ability for thought-provoking lyrics.
- STEWART WALKER