Soul Asylum

If Soul Asylum is out to make soulful brooding their specialty, they've just about perfected the art on this follow-up to their 1992 multiplatinum breakthrough, Grave Dancer's Union. With his weary, ragged vocals and depressive lyrics, singer Dave Pirner doesn't sound like either a man in love—though he and actress Winona Ryder have been dating for two years—or one finally rolling in royalties. "Frustrated incorporated," he sings over an infectious strummed-up beat on the chorus of "Misery," the album-opening first single, setting the CD's miserable mood. On "To My Own Devices" he revisits the heartbroken Tom Petty tone of Grave Dancer's Top 10 "Runaway Train," while on the wistful "Eyes of a Child" he spins sad tales about a burned-out pill-popping mama with 13 kids and a wayward girl who "was just 6 when she turned her first trick." Pirner's three bandmates mostly play along with these laid-back blues, but when they pep up—as on "Caged Rat," a throbbing slice of manic aggression—pull out your shades. That Dim-Light gets pretty dazzling. (Columbia)

Pavement

On two previous albums, Pavement established itself as a band brimming with talent but disinclined to work hard to show it. The ironic guys from Stockton, Calif., tossed off dozens of agile hooks and melodious snippets, infused them with experimental quirks, then cobbled the result into pleasantly ragged songs. Great things were predicted for these princes of tuneful nonchalance. But on its new album the band seems to reply, You don't get it, we really don't care.

It's an aggressively inchoate collection of 18 tracks, some of them less than 2 minutes long. The few that qualify as whole songs offer tantalizing glimpses of where Pavement might go if getting there wasn't such a bother. "Western Homes" is a winsomely pixilated pop tune, and "Kennel District" boasts an impressively growling guitar sound. But most of the album feels less like Pavement than like a lazily blazed trail. (Matador)

All-4-One

If only love were as unfailing as All-4-One assert on their sophomore album: "These eyes will worship and adore you/ These hands will love you every day," the foursome croons over a honey-drip melody. Unfortunately, love conquers all only in pop songs—like the aforementioned "These Arms" and "I Swear," All-4-One's chart-topping single from last year.

Sure the group's idealized vision of love can be wonderfully soothing, as on the stately "Giving You My Heart Forever," the doo-wopping "Could This Be Magic" and the sweaty bump-and-grinder "Love's Not Just Another Four-Letter Word." But the one-dimensional romanticism rings callow and shallow, leaving the album in need of some bitter reality to complement the sugar rush. (Blitzz/Atlantic)

Björk

Nearly a decade after landing on alternative pop's menu as front woman of the Sugarcubes, Björk, with her piercing wail and unpeggable pop tunes, remains an acquired taste. Regardless, her quirky flavor is clearly catching on. The Icelandic sprite's '93 solo Debut went gold, and last year Madonna chose a Björk co-composition as the title tune of her Bedtime Stories CD.

But budding mainstream acceptance hasn't brought Björk, 29, any closer to convention. Her hooks still hang in unlikely places—one dangles from a harp riff on "Cover Me"—and her tentative way of phrasing makes it seem as if she's making up lines like "I suck my thumb in remembrance of you" as she goes along. "Isobel" punctuates its grand, cinematic sweep with galloping rhythm, while "Headphones" features ambient noises looming in and out of earshot that recreate the Walkman-listening experience. Post really works its seriously strange stuff, though, with "Modern Things," a hypnotic techno track that finds Björk keeping her cool detachment while oozing an offbeat and enchanting soulfulness. (Elektra)

Fontella Bass

It's an old joke in the music business. How does a gospel singer cross over to pop? Answer: Sing the praises of "her" instead of "Him." With a twist of gender, Fontella Bass did essentially that back in 1965 when she scored a No. 4 hit with her gospel-tinged love shout "Rescue Me," one of the great wonders of '60s pop. Though hers was among the most powerful and engaging voices of that era, Bass, who grew up performing with her gospel-singing mother and grandmother, soon faded from the spotlight.

Now, 30 years later, Bass is back in His arms. Just because she's gone upper case and holy doesn't mean she has lowered the flame. This collection rocks. Singing her perfect-pitch praises of the Lord as fervently and enticingly as she ever called a lover, Bass gives traditional sounding gospel numbers like "You Don't Know What the Lord Told Me," "All My Burdens" and "Everlasting Arms" an irresistible, head-over-heels swing. Hymns like "The Light of the World," "I Surrender All" and the Reverend James Cleveland's title song have a rousing, bluesy urgency that exposes the bridge between gospel and pop: they're both about love.

Bass is backed throughout by a brilliant cast of session players including onetime Bob Dylan bassist Harvey Brooks, sax star David Sanborn and organist Donald Smith. Their roaring, soaring riffs, like her vocals, will rock the roof off any house, His or otherwise. (Nonesuch)

>Fontella Bass

TO FORGIVE IS DIVINE

Fontella Bass was 25 when she cut "Rescue Me," the 1965 hit that became an anthem of deliverance for Vietnam War protesters and soldiers alike. Though she cowrote the tune with Carl William Smith and Raynard Miner, she didn't begin receiving credit—or royalties—until 1990, when she struck a deal with MCA, the current owner of the song. Now 54, Bass often tours with Al Green, but home in St. Louis, she sings most Sundays at the Mount Beulah Missionary Baptist Church. "Gospel," says this divorced mother of four, "is what has sustained me all these years."

What's the history of "Rescue Me"?

I was part of the writing team at Chess Records in Chicago. One day I stopped by the studio and Raynard was in the rehearsal room. We made up the whole thing, lyrics and everything on the spot. I played rhythm piano and sang the melody lines. [Soul singer] Minnie Riperton came in and sang backup. In three takes we were done. I was so excited about that song. I told all my friends, "I think this is the one." The record came out, and my name was not on the sleeve [as cowriter]. And when I asked about it, [the people at the record company] told me, "Don't worry, we're gonna change that." But they never did.

Did the experience leave you bitter?

Here I was, a million-seller with no money. But I wanted to move on. I moved to France for three years. But before I did, I sang commercials for Nehi soda, Lincoln-Mercury, AC Spark Plugs and Sears. I made more in commercials than with "Rescue Me."

  • Contributors:
  • Jeremy Helligar,
  • Mark Lasswell,
  • Steve Dougherty.