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Various Artists
Good Will Hunting
(Capitol Records)

Most movie soundtrack albums function more as marketing ploys than coherent musical statements. Songs are either tagged on as blatant record-company favors or used to sell a piece of Hollywood hackwork on VH1. Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting is a different story. This maddeningly erratic, maverick filmmaker obviously had some kind of vision when he attached music to this tale of a brilliant but unmotivated young rebel. Stealing a page from the two most culturally significant soundtracks ever released -- The Graduate and Saturday Night Fever -- this album uses one artist as its fulcrum, mixing new and old songs to indirectly narrate the film.

Where The Graduate leaned on Simon and Garfunkel and Saturday Night Fever boasted the Bee Gees, Good Will Hunting invokes Elliott Smith. Probably the most brilliant indie-folk songwriter of the moment, Smith donates six tracks to this project, and his fragile, melancholy, young Alex Chilton tenor establishes a mournful mood that the album rarely breaks.

Smith contributes only one new song to the album -- a typically fine, gently rocking electric tune called "Miss Misery" -- but the quietly desperate "Between the Bars" resurfaces here in truncated form with a new Danny Elfman orchestration that proves surprisingly effective. Smith so dominates the album that even Elfman's instrumental piece "Will Hunting (Main Titles)" sounds like a Smith ballad with the vocal tracks wiped off. In this context, even hoary chestnuts like Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street" and Al Green's version of "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" make sense emotionally, if not musically. As with any soundtrack, the collection has its flaws (did Jackson Browne's "Somebody's Baby" really deserve a cover by Andru Donalds?), but it's generally satisfying as both a soundscape of the film and a welcome showcase for Smith's artistry.

-- Gilbert Garcia

Elaine Summers
Transplanting
(Loosegroove)

Pete Droge and his band the Sinners offered up one of the best releases of 1996 in Find a Door, an album of slightly skewed rock. Helping Droge's cause considerably was Elaine Summers, who lent her potent voice and deft fretwork to the effort. The tables are turned on Transplanting, with Summers slipping into the spotlight and Droge producing and playing backup. Summers doesn't disappoint: Transplanting is full of music that's too fresh to be Americana, yet too rooted in tradition to be considered modern rock. Full of oddly compelling arrangements and rhythms that are as emotional and expressive as Summers's voice, the music on Transplanting conjures up the intersections of modern America, where the strip mall runs into the desert. It's the spot that Sheryl Crow tries so hard to capture yet seems to miss every time: You just don't really believe that Crow loves that beer buzz early in the morning.

Put the same words across in Summers's girlish-but-grown voice, however, and you're there. Summers and Droge play almost all the instruments, but the album doesn't suffer from the stylistic straightjacket that such limited personnel can sometimes impose. Rather, there's an ebullience and enthusiasm behind the songs here that conjures up a block party (a swinging, bouncy remake of the Troggs's "Our Love Will Still Be There"), an evening cruise down life's main drag ("Tell Me About It"), or a bundle of best wishes to a former lover that reveals both damage and the ability to forgive ("Laugh"). The songs are full of electric guitars that know exactly when to growl in the background and when to roar to the fore, cushioned by acoustic and slide guitar, Hammond organ, harmonica, and just enough lo-fi to add grit without contrivance.

Summers's approach (the gospel chorus on "Real Low Down," the cascading intro to "Witness," the oily clockwork that paces "Ain't No Way") has that perfect amount of sonic overstatement that is the true spirit of rock and roll. Whether she's contemplating liberation or loss ("Fly" and "Gone to Stay") or telling a boy what it takes ("To Be Mine"), Summers captures not only the essence of a song, but the nut of its emotion. Transplanting is a most promising debut: a record that makes you itch to see the artist live.

-- Matt Weitz

Bobby Brown
Forever
(MCA)

Time hasn't been kind to Bobby Brown. The man who used to make women moist with his chiseled chest and flat-top Gumby hairdo now has to struggle to get whatever attention he can -- even if that involves getting drunk and pissing in the back seat of a police car. Playing cheerleader to wife Whitney Houston has only reduced his profile further.

It's been five years since Brown's last release, and his new CD, Forever, might well have you wishing that he'd stayed quiet longer. Let's face it: Brown was never the most diverse of contemporary R&B troubadours. But with the producers Babyface and Teddy Riley in his corner, Brown helped usher in a new trend in black music that combined the primal energy of hip-hop with the more refined passion of soul. On Forever, though, the singer is largely on his own, co-writing and co-producing most of the tracks. Somewhere in the process he lost the spring in his strut. On "Feeling Inside," he makes like a disturbing cross between Jimmy Durante and Ike Turner, leering like a lowbrow philanderer on the prowl and reducing his playboy luster to little more than a pervert's scheming dullness.

Still more of Forever finds Brown wallowing in the sort of semisincerity that would make most lounge acts wince. Every other song seems to be dedicated to either his wife (who makes herself known in a room-clearing cameo on the introductory track) or his bevy of offspring. Thankfully, such vapidity is nowhere to be found on the three tracks written and produced by Tim Kelley and Bob Robinson, all of which display a sly slinkiness that recalls Brown's Don't Be Cruel days. But such sweat-drenched memories are the exception rather than the rule.

During the course of the dismal New Edition reunion tour, Brown performed a new song, purportedly from Forever. It was a spry, winning ditty hung on a sample of the Gap Band's "Outstanding," and its name escapes me. The tune also escaped the final cut of Forever, along with almost everything else that makes Brown tick.

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Rakim
The 18th Letter/The Book of Life
(Universal)

It's not hyperbole to say that Rakim is one of the five finest vocal presences ever in hip-hop. In conjunction with Eric B., he made several great albums: If you don't already own Paid in Full and Don't Sweat the Technique, do yourself a favor and pick them up.

Rakim's return, coming several years after his split from Eric B., is not the bold salvo a lot of us have been hoping for. Part of the problem is that Rakim's words are so overly concerned with reintroducing himself ("It's Been a Long Time" and "Guess Who's Back" aren't titles chosen at random) that he doesn't get a chance to display the full range of his prowess. Given his verbal facility, this isn't a fatal flaw: He sounds so strong flipping a boast like "They said I changed the times/From the rhymes that I thought of" that you can't do anything more than agree. But more damaging is the inability of the assembled producers to key into Rakim musically with the ease that Eric B. exhibited. I liked "The Saga Begins," helmed by Pete Rock; "Stay Awhile," put together in conjunction with DJ Clark Kent; and the DJ Premier-directed "New York (Ya' Out There)," but these high points partner too much filler, including a couple of alternate mixes that are present only to make the album seem more generous than it is.

If The 18th Letter is spotty, The Book of Life, a companion disc, is a beauty -- fifteen Eric B. & Rakim gems, including "Eric B. Is President," "Casualties of War," and "Lyrics of Fury." Rakim may not be all the way back yet, but if his past victories are any indication, he'll get there before long. And when he does, watch out.

-- Michael Roberts

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