The performances are conducted by Morricone, and DRG's documentation serves film-score fanatics well. Now if you want to be cool, just put on this CD, get out those dark sunglasses, light up that Gitane, rev up that engine, and just say "Ciao, bella" as you speed off into the sunset.

-- Raymond Tuttle

Tracy Chapman
New Beginning

Talkin' 'bout a de-evolution. Nigh on ten years ago, Tracy Chapman burst onto the music scene as an authentic voice of protest in an age of frightful superficiality. Remember, a B-movie star was in the White House, the Moral Majority was on the prowl, and the unfortunate musical concept known as new wave was not yet a cutesy retro-radio format. Into this wilderness dropped young Chapman, with a voice like liquid amber, spare guitar riffs that implanted themselves on the frontal lobes, and lyrics that condemned the cultural vibe with rare pathos, eloquence, and irony. It was no wonder she and her stubbly dreadlocks stormed the Grammys following her 1988 debut album and the huge hit "Fast Car."

Nor any wonder that her second and third albums failed to live up to unfairly inflated expectations. Unfortunately, there is no reason to recommend her fourth and latest album, New Beginning, as anything of the sort. Rather, the Boston-based folkie has completed her graceful dive into mediocrity. Just to clarify, the songs here are not bad. Chapman's voice is as rich as ever, and her backing band provides quiet, complementary accompaniment. But the indelible melodies are gone, replaced by generic folk Pablum, and Chapman's poison pen now sounds more like a dull number-two pencil. Consider "Rape of the World," perhaps the album's best case study -- seven minutes of meandering song line and chanted slogans a la "Mother of us all/Place of our birth/How can we stand aside and watch the rape of the world?" This is the same woman who wrote "Fast Car"?

There are a few moments of genuine life here, most notably the percussive title track and the anthemic "Tell It Like It Is," both of which call to mind the fiery joy of earlier efforts. "Give Me One Reason" is a satisfying belt of twelve-bar blues. Tellingly, the song was written in 1986. Aside from these, the aural scenery passes without much notice. It's no wonder the reflexively PC Chapman urges fans to send away for garden seeds on the CD sleeve. She's provided plenty of low-grade fertilizer with this effort.

-- Steve Almond

Various Artists
Ain't Nuthin' but a She Thing

Various Artists
Global Divas: Voices from 20 Women of the World

Considering they were released nearly simultaneously and focus on a central theme -- a musical celebration of female identity, struggle, and achievement designed to raise funds for various women's causes -- Ain't Nuthin' but a She Thing and Global Divas couldn't be more different.

The latter set collects 41 songs from 30 nations on three discs in a beautiful slipcover package and represents the full spectrum of world folk music and the female voices that resound most powerfully through it. The first disc alone tours effortlessly across fourteen countries, including Norway, Australia, Cuba, Greece, and Brazil, with each song showcasing a distinctly female perspective. Released in honor of this year's United Nations World Conference on Women, Global Divas is a benefit release for UNIFEM, a development fund to support women's projects and interests.

She Thing is a decidedly more commercial-minded venture, undertaken by London Records and Levi's Jeans for Women in conjunction with a recent MTV special on "sheroes" (female heroes). With tracks ranging from Sinead O'Connor's Gaelic folk to Luscious Jackson's French-language groove funk, from Come's aggressive post-punk to Salt-n-Pepa's assertive, swaggering hip-hop, the set is diverse despite its focus on mainstream American and European artists. The ten songs express the strength and vulnerability, love and lust, hope and pain of women's experiences. Profits from sales are going to the Shirley Divers Foundation, which supports women's health and rights groups.

-- Roni Sarig

Alice in Chains
Alice in Chains

Even if there were nothing else redeeming on Alice in Chains, the Seattle foursome's third album, the entire enterprise deserves a hearty thumbs-up from free-speech fans for successfully slipping the phrase "fucked up" onto the Top 40 airwaves. Guitarist-vocalist Jerry Cantrell croons the unbleeped obscenity no less than three times in the band's current radio hit "Heaven Beside You." The trick, it seems, is to sing it prettily.

Of course, dense and slightly off-kilter harmonizing has long been an Alice in Chains trademark, and the band never tires of frosting its basic metallico-grunge with intricate and deceptively sweet vocal interplay. Not only does this enable them to sneak dirty words past the FCC, but it also gives their doomy tunes some potent pop appeal. "Heaven Beside You," for instance, is catchy as all get-out A a sort of woozy country ballad punctuated by big, loud guitar breaks. Other songs lean more toward the grunting mid-pace riff noise that the Seattle region is known for, and though the song titles are conveniently descriptive ("Sludge Factory" and "Grind," especially), they don't hint at the canny vocal hooks and overall craftsmanship buried amid the murk.

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