Lisa Loeb

What's been so refreshing about Lisa Loeb up to now is that she has never tried to sell anyone false goods. Unlike Alanis or Courtney or any of rock's other young women, Loeb never pretended to be angry. Rocketing to fame on the strength of her sweetly crafted single "Stay" a few years back, Loeb looked and sounded like the cute, shy girl you sat next to in freshman biology lab.

Her 1995 debut, Tails, was stocked with clever, lilting, girl-meets-boy-girl-loses-boy ballads. Loeb came across as a Leslie Gore for the Nineties, but with more sass and savvy. After hearing the first four songs on her followup, Firecracker, I was ready to proclaim her the most ingratiating female act since the Bangles and Go-Go's matched pop smarts in the early Eighties. The first single, "I Do," is about as hummable a piece of pop as you could ask for; "Falling In Love," "Truthfully," and "Let's Forget About It" present appealing variations on the lost-love theme, while demonstrating enough musical range to showcase Loeb's songwriting talent.

But something happens along about track number five, something not at all good. The pace slows considerably and the songs become clogged with orchestral arrangements, as heavy and portentous as Wagner. The opening to "Furious Rose" in particular sounds like a bad horror movie soundtrack. Worst of all, Loeb's voice grows ... well, if not exactly angry, at least pouty and morose.

She wants to sound tough and dramatic, I suppose, but her willowy tenor just sounds silly. The lyrics are part of the problem. When placed in a pop setting, her moony musings seem right at home. But asked to match the weighty feel of songs like "Jake," they belly flop. "You can't stand in front of an oven/Because it's warm," Loeb belts out, with no hint of levity, "and the fumes are dangerous." Um, yeah. Meanwhile, the able backing of guitarist Mark Spencer and drummer Ronny Crawford is lost in the turbulence of violins, clarinets, and cellos.

Perhaps Loeb felt compelled to prove herself a "serious" artist with Firecracker. Her ability to compose graceful, catchy pop tunes should have been enough. Instead, Loeb bails out on the idea of having fun and the listener gets dragged down into her bummer.

-- Keith Lee Morris

Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna & Evelino Pid˜
Donizetti: L'Elisir d'Amore

Next to The Barber of Seville, L'Elisir d'Amore is history's most popular Italian comic opera. It's about Nemorino, a rural hick who buys a bottle of cheap Bordeaux from a quack doctor. Although it's not the magical elixir of love he thinks it is, he nevertheless wins the love of Adina, the spoiled village girl who spurns him until she feels the arrows of unreturned passion herself.

This new recording originates from a production in Lyon, France. The updated costumes suggest a Fellini film; the late Italian filmmaker would probably have been a natural to direct this warm-hearted opera. This time around, the stars are a real-life married couple, soprano Angela Gheorghiu and tenor Roberto Alagna. In a modern world comparatively short on major operatic talent, record companies and opera houses are hoping that these young singers, already successful, will continue to win the public's sympathies.

And why not? Both are accomplished singers (though hardly the best to have recorded this music), and they look good. More important, they have vital comic instincts. The heavy-handed approach that has marred other recordings of this opera is not evident here. Much of the credit must go to the supporting singers, and especially to conductor Evelino Pid˜, who takes the music seriously enough to do right by it, but not so seriously that he ruins its fun.

True opera fans will be interested to know that this is the first time the score's most famous aria, "Una Furtiva Lagrima," has been recorded in Donizetti's more ornate alternative arrangement. Transposed down a minor third, it lets Alagna show off the more baritonal colors in his voice. London's accompanying booklet includes the Italian text and English translations. If you're looking for your first opera (and are a sucker for happy endings), this Elixir of Love will go down smooth.

-- Raymond Tuttle

Manuelle Alejandro
Para Siempre
(Caiman Records)

Behind the clever production work of Manuelle Alejandro's debut release, Para Siempre (Forever), you can almost hear his agent's persistent urgings: "You just wait, muchacho, you're going to be the next Willie Chirino." Everyone on this album seems to be in on the Chirino conspiracy, most of all producer Gustavo Marquez. The chorus of the opening track, "No Te Separes de Mi" ("Don't Part with Me"), for example, is deliberately pocked with spoken Y tu lo sabes's, and AQue nos pasó, baby?s, which conjure up the presence of the Cuban-American sonero.

Though Alejandro's uncanny imitation of Willie Chirino brings "No Te Separes de Mi" to an occasional sizzle, songwriters Julio Seija and Luis G. Escobar seem to have given up on the lyrics. With the inimitable saxophone of Ed Calle spicing the verses, it's no wonder they got lazy. They probably figured people will be too busy feeling this number on the dance floor to consider the banality of the sentiment. Stranger things have been known to happen in Latin clubs.

A Havana native, Alejandro has a voice less gravelly than Chirino's, despite his propensity to tear it to shreds looking for some semblance of sex appeal. Unfortunately Alejandro, a former student at the Cuban music academy Escuela Nacional de Instructores, conveys none of that school-of-hard-knocks grit that Chirino exudes beneath the mask of his charm. In fact, Alejandro is more at home in brooding love ballads like "Corazón Clandestino," on which nary a conga drum is heard. And yet by the time we reach the last swinging bars of the closer, "Ensename a Olvidarte" ("Show Me How to Forget You"), Alejandro's imitation of Chirino is so faithful you may find yourself tempted to stuff this CD into the wrong jewel box. There are a lot of notable players on this disc, but where is Manuelle Alejandro? More to the point: Who is Manuelle Alejandro? There are photos aplenty of the crooner on the cover of Para Siempre, but precious little of the man's identity in the music.

-- Victor Cruz

Roni Size & Reprazent
New Forms
(Talking Loud/Mercury)

Although it's been a little more than two years since drum and bass started its run as the new "next big thing," only in the last few months has any music surfaced that truly substantiates that claim. The genre then known primarily as "jungle" had been a staple of British nightclubs for years when, in late 1995, Goldie grabbed American media attention. Despite his charisma (and block-rocking body), Goldie's sound was, for the most part, one-dimensional: chattering drum beats mixed with smooth-jazz synthesizer washes and classically trained female vocals. The sound was a delightful novelty but offered scant evidence of an emerging genre.

A few years before and concurrent with jungle's emergence, the musical sophistication of Portishead, Tricky, and Massive Attack established trip-hop as something more than a Beth Gibbons moan, a Martine Topley-Bird wail, or a subdued Nellee Hooper beat. The savoir-faire of those groups elevated the fragmented pieces from pleasant ideas to elements of a style. More recently, acts on a similar mission for drum and bass have arrived in droves. The best yet is Roni Size & Reprazent and their New Forms.

Size is from Bristol, England, home of the aforementioned trip-hoppers, and he brings a comparable musical savvy to the unabashedly ambitious New Forms. Spread over two discs, the effort is proudly arty in songs such as "Destination." That cut's dense, well-articulated layers and pedestrian -- as opposed to Indy car -- beats per minute make it better suited for home stereo than for the dance floor. Rather than relying solely on texture or the clever use of samples, Size's music creates dazzling, catchy rhythms, often with acoustic bass lines, then fucks with them. It's the DJ experience fully articulated for the CD player.

Size prefers to use the term "universal" rather than "pop" to refer to his music. He backs it up by forging strong bonds with other related styles: "Brown Paper Bag" locks into a walking jazz beat; "Railing" uses dancehall-style toasts; and the title track features low-key scat-rapping from Philadelphia-based hip-hopper Bahamadia. The CD's best track, "Watching Windows," easily reads as a tribute to Nellee Hooper. With his unique brand of jungle, Size plunges into the mainstream without letting it wash away his most uncommon characteristics. It's integration without assimilation. -- Martin Johnson

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Victor Cruz
Martin Johnson
Keith Lee Morris
Raymond Tuttle