Lisa Loeb & Nine Stories

Low expectations should be the order of the day for everything from blind dates to family vacations. Still, some events in life whet our appetites for something more, such as Loeb's first full-length release since her fluky but intriguing single, "Stay (I Missed You)," from the Reality Bites soundtrack. If you are a cynic and assumed the seemingly brainy beauty with the cat-eyed, tortoiseshell glasses couldn't top that open-wound confessional about a romantic breakup, you were right. But there's more than a smidgen of raw talent in Loeb, even if she doesn't offer anything we haven't heard before.

She tries to meld a kind of soft-grunge electric sound and her more comfortable coffeehouse-on-campus folk guitar style with varying effect. "Rose-Colored Times" has a sinewy folk-rock edge that nicely underlines its lyrics about not-so-innocent youth and a family torn asunder: "Mama left me her ring/ Mama left me no family/ Just barstools and boyfriends." But no matter what musical tone she strikes, Loeb wears her emotions on her tear-stained sleeves, even if her characters are made of hardy stock. "She can't tell me that all of the love songs have been written," sings Loeb on the delicate "Sandalwood," " 'Cause she's never been in love with you before." Loeb, who studied comparative literature at Brown, tends to wrench herself trying to be too clever or urbane. But her clear-eyed observations on love and the treacherous turns it can take are good reasons to expect her to be more than a one-hit wunderkind. (Geffen)

THE GOLD EXPERIENCE

The Man Who Would Not Be Prince has fallen into a rut. All right, a deeply funky rut, but a rut nonetheless. His recent releases all take the form of murky theme albums, usually celebrating carnality, the songs loosely stitched with snippets of cryptic dialogue. Apparently we are to look upon The Gold Experience as a computer program exploring sex, fetishism and self-esteem. But forget that fatuous folderol. It's the music that makes this the most accessible and exciting album the Seraphic One has released in the '90s. From the bang-the-drum barbarity of "Endorphin-machine" to the gospel-tinged testimony of "I Hate U" to the heady ballad "Shhh" evoking vintage Isley Brothers, this is a regal outing for the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.

The project contains some departures as well. For instance, the pop satyr is for the first time handling all his own rapping elements. Whereas in the past he had farmed out the verbal gymnastics to hired tongues, the ex-Prince, like most obsessives, would rather do everything himself. His rapping is adequate but stiff. This record is also distinguished by sophisticated horn charts, for example on...well, it's one of the titles we can't reprint in a family magazine.

There are enough messy and clamorous tracks here to qualify this record as the latest in a string of indulgent imaginary soundtracks to the X-rated movies that seem to be constantly showing in the abdicated Prince's head. The difference is that The Gold Experience is touched by brilliance. (NPG/Warner Bros.)

Kevin Welch

Kevin Welch insists that he isn't much of a singer. Truth be told, this former full-time laborer in Nashville's songwriting mills, who plucked up his courage a few years ago and stepped up to the mike, has a reedy but masculine tenor that is one of country-pop's most affecting, distinctive voices this side of Jimmie Dale Gilmore.

Welch's emphatic delivery echoes Bob Dylan's without copying it. In his first record on Dead Reckoning, the label he has started with fellow Nashville stalwarts Harry Stinson and Kieran Kane, Welch, 40, goes well beyond the bounds of country music. He weaves together strands of folk, country and rock, coming up with a novel brand of mostly acoustic contemporary pop, as listenable as it is tough to define. Former NRBQ guitarist Al Anderson visits; so do the late Stevie Ray Vaughan's keyboardist, Reese Wynans, and the wonderful gospel quartet the Fairfield Four. Welch's best songs are as memorable as his voice: the somber and rocking "Troublesome Times," the spooky "Wilson's Tracks"—about a desperate man outrunning the law—and the hymn-like "One Way Rider," which sounds for all the world like something by folk-rocker Eric Andersen More and more talented renegades like Welch are crawling out of the woodwork in Nashville, shaking upthe country status quo. God bless 'em. (Dead Reckoning)

Maura O'Connell

A native of western Ireland who found her way to Nashville in the mid-'80s, this talented contralto sings pop music one might call neo-folk (or chamber country) that is rooted in American and British folk tradition, but with the rough edges sanded off. It may use old-fashioned acoustic instruments, but they're meticulously arranged—and the whole is recorded with a high-gloss sheen. O'Connell addresses her material with a cabaret singer's attention to nuance. Stories doesn't quite lapse into the synthed-out blandness of Enya's "New-Age Celtic" sound, but it comes perilously close; it's got an embalmed feeling. In concert, O'Connell is a fiery, passionate singer; on Stories she sounds as if she's practicing her elocution. She and producer Jerry Douglas should have sacrificed diction for soul—O'Connell has got plenty of it. (Hannibal/Rykodisc)

  • Contributors:
  • Andrew Abrahams,
  • David Hiltbrand,
  • Tony Scherman.