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Intrigue
Acoustic Soul
(Universal)
Tony Toni Tone
House of Music
(Mercury)

Think back to the abyss of early Eighties urban thump-thump music. New technology had yet to be mastered by artists like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, black pop music was in assembly-line mode, and it seemed that maybe real singing and playing had gone out of R&B forever. But behind the scenes the river of black gospel, with its soaring voices and full-scale bands, kept flowing in thousands of American churches. Eventually, it re-erupted on the music scene in the person of Boyz II Men and the acolytes who followed.

Brooklyn vocal trio Intrigue, strong songwriters and volcanic singers all, has a sound something like Tony Rich, but much fuller and more satisfying. It's built on acoustic guitar, bass, and drums, with embellishments by strings, horns, and harmonica. They can sha-la-la-la-la in the style of Van Morrison and occasionally head into Crosby, Stills and Nash territory. But Intrigue's forte is devotional singing, usually to a woman but also, on occasion, to the "Heavenly Father." The showstopper is a stunning cover of the Drifters' 1959 hit "Dance With Me." Done originally as an uptempo big-production Leiber/Stoller extravaganza, Intrigue pares the sound, slows it way down until it's almost a folksong.

Tony Toni Tone is an Oakland threesome that not only writes their own material but plays most of the music as well (Rafael Siddiq plays bass on the new John Mellencamp album). They take their inspiration from the secular side -- Curtis Mayfield; the Spinners; Earth, Wind and Fire; the Stylistics. They can't compete with Intrigue as singers, but they add elements of funk (particularly nasty keyboards) and hip-hop (DJ Quik guests on "Let's Get Down," rapping over skittering acoustic guitar) to make up the difference. TTT takes a song as essentially corny as "Holy Smokes and Gee Whiz" and, by delicately doling out portions of horns, guitar, and strings, makes it into something worthy of its obvious model "Betcha by Golly Wow."

-- Lee Ballinger

John Corigliano
Of Rage and Remembrance/Symphony No. 1
(RCA Victor Red Seal)

The release of this recording was timed to accompany the start of conductor Leonard Slatkin's first season as music director of Washington, D.C.'s National Symphony Orchestra. Its release is linked to another recent event in the capital: the display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt on the Mall.

Corigliano's First Symphony is a document of the AIDS epidemic -- the sinister power of a tiny virus, mankind's impotence in halting its deadly campaign, and, most important, the people who sickened and died. At times the music is almost nauseatingly angry (the virtuosic second movement is a painful depiction of AIDS-related dementia) and literal (the orchestra obsesses over the note A for AIDS); at other times it is bittersweet, nostalgic, and perhaps even hopeful.

Art should put human tragedy into perspective; Corigliano cannot because he, like so many other people, is so deeply affected by AIDS. There is no doubt that his heart is on fire, but if only he had kept his brain on ice, a more objective and enduring work would have resulted. Slatkin believes that this symphony will "survive its program." I disagree: In a world without AIDS, Corigliano's symphony will be more remembered than played, if it is remembered at all.

However, that does not stop it from being a fascinating specimen of contemporary society and culture. Slatkin's recording surpasses the competition's (Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) in two ways: It is more understandably interpreted, and it includes more music. Of Rage and Remembrance is a thirteen-minute choral work based on the symphony's third movement. Here, the tributes are made literal as the chorus and soloists chant and sing the names of friends and lovers taken by AIDS. Even more subjective than the symphony, Of Rage and Remembrance is that much more threatened by future objectivity.

-- Raymond Tuttle

Throwing Muses
Limbo
(Throwing Music/Rykodisc)

Four years ago on Throwing Muses' wildly uneven Red Heaven, singer/songwriter Kristin Hersh sang "I can't relieve the pressure in my head," a line that deftly encapsulates the sometimes-existing-on-another-plane persona she projects through her seemingly free-association lyrics, chattery rhythm guitar-based music, and swaying-in-place autistic stage presence. In short, Hersh and her songs operate in a kind of rock limbo, tied to no particular sound or genre.

Appropriate, then, that the most cogent clutch of Muses' songs since 1991's The Real Ramona (that qualifier purposely excludes Hersh's fine 1994 solo Hips and Makers) is called Limbo. The new album both darts and dallies, rocking out ecstatically to a fuzzy garage guitar on "Ruthie's Knocking," waxing contemplative on the cello-flecked "Serene," and getting deliriously consumed by a sea of waffling background electronics and an insistent rhythmic throb (courtesy of drummer David Narcizo and bassist Bernard Georges) on the funkified title cut. Hersh peels off some gorgeous Spanish guitar lines on "Freeloader" and adds a Western fillip to "Tar Kisses," while playing cleaner-than-usual parts on many other songs, notably "Mr. Bones" and a slow, skeletal unlisted track.

As for what she's on about, well, that always presents a problem: She sounds somber, bewildered, hyperactive, exasperated, lost, found, and yearning, among other things, but her elegantly wiggy lyrics -- "Kissing you's like kissing gravel/Kissing you's like sinking down into the moss" represents the straightforward end of the spectrum here -- make for shooting-from-the-hip interpretations at best. "I don't hear, I don't hear/I'm a free thinker/I'm empty enough to see you as I want," she declares on "Freeloader." Or as Hersh sings at the beginning of the title song, "Nice limbo you have here." Well, yeah.

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