Acoustic Soul
Tony Toni Tone
House of Music

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
(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.

-- Michael Yockel

Yo La Tengo
Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo

Living up to the mathematical equation in its title, Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo is where the depth of the revered Hoboken trio's greatness becomes apparent, where their soaring sonic experiments and embraceable pop charms shimmer with, well, genius. It's a two-disc, career-spanning collection of B-sides, rarities, compilation cuts, and outtakes that, despite the disparate nature of the bunch, hangs together like an honest-to-god, bona fide album. The songs are separated into vocal and instrumental halves, and though I would have mixed 'em all up, the strong stuff on both discs is easy to find: beautiful interpretations of songs by the Velvet Underground ("I'm Set Free"), Jackson Browne ("Somebody's Baby"), the Urinals ("Surfin' with the Shah"), Wire ("Too Late"), John Cale ("Hanky Panky No How"), and the Ramones ("Blitzkrieg Bop"); a two-part take on "From a Motel 6" that complements the version found on the band's '93 album Painful; some worthy outtakes from last year's Electr-O-Pura; and enough tastefully chaotic blasts from Ira Kaplan to back up his reputation as the underground's greatest guitar hero. And just to remind you that Yo La Tengo are human and that Genius + Love is a hodgepodge, you get a few honest-to-god, bona fide throwaways. After all, where else are you gonna put a noisy, indulgent, 26-minute version of "Sunsquased"?

-- John Floyd

Tommy Castro
Exception to the Rule
(Blind Pig)

Committed to blues that rock hard and sometimes shift into Memphis-style R&B, San Francisco newcomer Tommy Castro makes a favorable impression singing and playing electric guitar on an album of eight decent originals and hard-driving adaptions of Buddy Guy's "Can't Quit the Blues" and Freddie King's "Me and My Guitar." Stoked by sax, bass, and drums, Castro gives emphatic feeling to his lines without succumbing to an exaggerated sense of self-importance, as most guitarslingers are wont to do. Castro's guitar is at its most communicative, really, on the slow blues "How Long Must I Cry?," where eloquence exists in the subtleties of shading and phrasing. This song also has his most thoughtful lyrics, with Castro taking stock of the troubled world around him rather than offering the "bad luck" and "I like girls" tripe of his other songs. Keep your fingers crossed that Castro's success in the rock and roll marketplace -- where he has been making his move -- doesn't turn him into an image-smitten celeb.

-- Frank-John Hadley

Jimmy Scott
(Warner Bros.)

A lot of jazz singers have essayed gospel albums; few, though, have expanded the definition to include a song like the Talking Heads classic that is this set's title track. Jimmy Scott, of course, is even more one-of-a-kind than most other unique artists, and his finely wrought style is a perfect match for a sanctified concept album such as Heaven. In Scott's able hands, David Byrne's enigmatic lyric becomes both a quest for a peaceful afterlife and a weird, come-hither invitation. Nothing else here is quite as intriguing, but a stack of contemporary Christian tunes, several traditional hymns, and the Impressions' "People Get Ready" get the treatment from Scott and a hushed acoustic quartet led by pianist/arranger Jacky Terrasson. Along with the Heads number, it's "People Get Ready" that stands out here, in part because the Curtis Mayfield chestnut has been verging on the over-recorded for the past decade. In a testament to his talent, Scott delivers it with enough of a fresh twist to make the listener forget the question "Why not 'The Young Mod's Forgotten Story'?"

Ultimately, Heaven is a comforting continuation of Scott's fine string of Warner Bros. treasures and one that inspires you to pick songs and concepts for other records. A disc of Van Morrison covers? Elvis Costello's "Baby Plays Around"? TLC's "Waterfalls"? A collaboration with Babyface? All of these make at least as much sense as Talking Heads and gospel, and whet the appetite for more offbeat late-night sounds. So may the Lord bless and keep Jimmy Scott.

-- Rickey Wright

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Lee Ballinger
John Floyd
Frank-John Hadley
Raymond Tuttle
Rickey Wright
Michael Yockel