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Love Jones: The Music
(Sony Music Entertainment)

The re-emergence in the Nineties of films featuring African Americans has reinforced the idea of the black-film soundtrack as an American institution. Outstanding collections such as Above the Rim, Waiting to Exhale, and Juice have continued the tradition set in the Seventies with masterworks like Trouble Man, Superfly, and Shaft. Whether the films are considered good or not, these soundtracks are important in that they represent the cutting edge of a certain African-American aesthetic, both musically and culturally, at a given time in America.

Love Jones, the new Nia Long/Larenz Tate romance yarn, offers an interesting take on the black-film soundtrack. Hip-hop is conspicuous here by its absence, but that's okay: things are strictly on the late-night tip. The Fugees' Lauryn Hill gives a hint of what her inevitable solo career will offer with the tender "The Sweetest Thing." The Brand New Heavies, now without N'dea Davenport, contribute one of the funkier things they've done in a while with "I Like It." Retro-soul crooners Maxwell and Kenny Lattimore each come correct, the former with a dope remix of his Hang Suite hit "Sumthin' Sumthin,'" and the latter with the very cool "Can't Get Enough." "Rush Over" is vintage Me'Shell NdegeOcello, all romantic poetics and fat bass lines that are accentuated nicely by Marcus Miller. Dionne Farris has matured incredibly as a vocalist, as she displays on the melancholy "Hopeless." Cassandra Wilson, Groove Theory, and Trina Broussard also shine on the set.

What's striking about all of the music here is that it becomes an alternative looking glass into this decade's urban musical landscape. This may be fly bedroom music with no agenda other than an invitation between the sheets, but in light of the passing of the Notorious B.I.G., Love Jones makes an interesting statement as black music stumbles toward whatever the so-called post-gangsta era will bring.

-- Jesse Ballinger

Freedy Johnston
Never Home
(Elektra)

Freedy Johnston's fourth album begins with "On The Way Out," a smart and catchy song about a shoplifter. "Wonder if I am gonna pay," Johnston has the character say -- perhaps wondering about a clerk who may or may not have him nailed, maybe just musing on what his life holds in store -- and it's just this sort of small but tightly packed moment that has critics marveling over Johnston's short-storylike compositions.

Because he's working within the singer-songwriter tradition, Johnston gets compared to Joni Mitchell a lot, and even to James Taylor, but these comparisons are frankly bizarre. Never Home's "Gone to See the Fire" (about a woman who suspects her boyfriend may be an arsonist) and "One More Thing to Break" (about an alcoholic who knows his girlfriend is ashamed of him) are clearly more character-based than confessional, so the truth is that Johnston's art owes more to Warren Zevon, say, or Randy Newman, except that it's never cynical or condescending. Even when his characters are threatening to be jerks -- like the man in "If It's True" who may or may not be planning to bail on a lover who may or may not be pregnant -- you can always tell that Johnston really likes his characters.

Of course, if Johnston's lyrics weren't coupled with infectious tunes and vocals, nobody would be going on about the words anyway. The real secret of his success as an artist is that he's a great pop rocker with an infallible ear for purposeful arrangements. The instantly catchy "I'm Not Hypnotized" and "You Get Me Lost" sound like the kind of songs Marshall Crenshaw should be doing, and the way "Western Sky" and "Seventies Girl" move gracefully from quiet and acoustic to swelling and electric is absolutely gorgeous.

The only potential inadequacy is Johnston's thin voice. He sings in such a choppy, straining fashion that sometimes he almost sounds as if he's making it up as he goes along. Except that his voice feels all the more sincere and affecting for its inadequacies, and except that each line adds up, every word matters. And it's only when I'm humming along for the fourth or tenth time that his lyrics really begin to work theirmagic. If Never Home hadn't sounded so cool from the start, I wouldn't have gotten that far in the first place.

-- David Cantwell

Solomon Burke
The Definition of Soul
(Pointblank)

Back in the Sixties, Solomon Burke was among a handful of artists who helped create and define soul music, which united the sanctified vocal intensity of gospel with the secular lyrical concerns of rhythm and blues. Unfortunately, despite its promising title, there are few soul-defining moments on Burke's latest set.

As a former child minister, Burke's gospel roots run deep, but you'll have a hard time proving that here. Instead of the impassioned, raw testifying he's always been known for, Burke opts mostly for a relatively staid, Lou Rawls-style of deep-voiced crooning. On most cuts, the exceedingly bland synth-dominated backing tracks lull you into a deep, contemporary-funk sleep; even a duet between Burke and Little Richard is surprisingly tepid, producing neither the fireworks nor the histrionics you would expect from two singers who are billed in this album's liner notes as the respective Kings of Soul and Rock and Roll.

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