Sting

OK, it's true. Sting is more than just a pretty face. After 15 years of making albums, he has earned a place alongside such restless pop paragons as Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and Van Morrison. Unwilling to put out retreads of the same album every two years, Sting and these artists continually push in new directions, challenging fans and themselves.

After his successive Police pop, jazz and Brecht-Weill phases, Sting is shifting directions again with Ten Summoner's Tales. Don't be put off by the ponderous title. With this record, Sting re-enters the mellifluous pop arena with a vengeance.

Although his lyrics are sometimes cumbersome ("He deals the cards to find the answer/ The sacred geometry of chance/ The hidden law of probable outcome") and Sting's cleverness is more in evidence than his passion in this collection, the music flows simply and sweetly throughout. The trenchant ballad "If I Ever Lose My Faith in You" is a skeptic's declaration of romantic devotion and Sting's most-likely-to-be-a-hit release in years. "Heavy Cloud, No Rain" is a clipped, hepcat stroll reminiscent of Steely Dan. "Shape of My Heart" is as luminously lovely as a hymn played on a harp. With Ten Summoner's Tales, Sting proves he really is a breed apart from the haircut-and-video boys. (A&M)

Stacy Dean Campbell

If you had to convince a doubter that something mysterious and splendid is happening in Nashville these days, and you could only use a single album as exhibit A, this fresh amalgam of soulful retro roots and clean '90s style would work just fine. Ten songs go by in 32 minutes flat but, with not a false moment from beginning to end, it's an exhilarating ride.

Campbell, who is only 24 years old, grew up in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico and was about to become a county sheriff when he decided to try a music career instead. Add 90210 good looks and Chris Isaak hair to that Southwestern country upbringing, and you have got half of what you need to make a star. The crucial other half includes taste, a distinctive voice and a gift for song-writing—and this young man has them all in spades.

The spare but swinging arrangements use electric, acoustic and pedal-steel guitars with great effectiveness on songs that range from loved-and-lost laments ("That Blue Again") to long-distance driving songs ("Rosalee") to intense ballads ("Poor Man's Rose"). Campbell's clear voice wraps around pithy country phrases and imbues them with a strength and sweetness reminiscent of the Everly Brothers, but he can also let loose on the up-tempo numbers with full-throated syncopation that has traces of Buddy Holly rockability. On "A Thousand Times," a wonderful song about wistfully turning down a chance to be unfaithful, Campbell even manages to sound both seriously tempted and morally certain. When this crooner walks the line, you listen. (Columbia)

John Lee Hooker

When Hooker cut his first single, a stomping guitar boogie called "Boogie Chillen" in 1948, the Mississippi native was working as a janitor in a Detroit steel mill. The song was a hit, and Hooker quit his job to play full-time the hypnotic one-chord country blues—sung in his preternatural growl—that he had learned from his stepfather, Will Moore.

Fourty-four years later, the now 72-year-old Hooker has come out with a stark, dark, solo-studded album, which includes a new version of his 1962 full-tilt rocker, "Boom Boom." (Is there a rock band in the world that hasn't played this at some point?) There are also tracks from earlier sessions with noted guitarists Albert Collins and Robert Cray, but the real gems here are Hooker's revisionist versions of his old blues hits, "Sugar Mama" and "Hittin' the Bottle Again." Accompanied only by his own electric guitar, Hooker has given back to these tunes their seductive, deep-blues primalness. And on "I'm Bad Like Jesse James," when Hooker rasps, "I'm mad/ I'm bad/ I'm bad/ I'll stick you in the water/ Hear the bubbles come up/ Mm...Mm...Mm," you are down in the water with him, begging for your life. (Point-blank/Charisma)"

ZAP MAMA

If your idea of a cappella is Boyz II Men, then this new album by Zap Mama, an all-female group whose five members are based in Brussels, will be a shock. Zap Mama, with its extraordinary vocal energy, artfully and beautifully blurs cultural and linguistic distinctions, creating a sonic DMZ that is nothing shy of thrilling.

Formed by Zairean-Belgian singer Marie Daulne, the group reflects not only the mixed racial ancestry of its members, but the increasing musical melding of African and European peoples. Zap Mama, true to its name, crosscuts from culture to culture with the precision and ease of a remote control. With the magnificent ebb and flow of their nondigitized, human harmonies, the group takes what might be exotic sounds and makes them accessible. No mean feat, considering Zap Mama is singing in French, English, Spanish, Zairean, Pygmy and other tribal tongues.

This record reconfirms that the human voice is still the most potent instrument out there. As the planet gets smaller, our musical scope has to get larger. Zap Mama busts down the barriers. (Note: This is the first album released by Luaka Bop, former Talking Head David Byrne's world music label, as part of its new African-Europe series.)

>Sting

THE KING OF PAIN, NOW LORD OF THE MANOR

ON THE PHONE FROM LONDON, WHERE he is preparing to begin a six-month tour, the once brooding rocker Sting, 41, sounds suspiciously sunny. "I used to say, 'You have to suffer to create.' But why the hell should I? I'm happy," he says. His latest album, Ten Summoner's Tales, reflects his mood makeover. It was written and recorded last summer after he moved to a 500-year-old Tudor estate near Stonehenge and was planning his marriage to Trudy Styler, 39, mother of three of his children.

"I'm a city boy," says the Newcastle native. "I'd never thought about moving to the country. But I saw a picture of this house in a newspaper, and I thought, 'God, it looks like some place I'd dreamed about.' "

The pastoral setting had an effect. "I made this record in my dining room with all the equipment and the band [guitarist Dominic Miller, keyboardist David Sancious and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta] in there and my kids around, looking out at a nice lawn. Most albums I've made have been done in industrial studios with no fresh air, no daylight, more like a prison-bunker atmosphere."

The result is a vast change from his last album, 1991's gloomy, confessional Soul Cages. "I didn't want to have to dredge up personal trauma to write songs, so I started to write songs that weren't necessarily about me. It was really designed to amuse myself, the band and my family. Anybody else that likes it," he says, laughing, "is just cream on the cake."

  • Contributors:
  • David Hiltbrand,
  • Hal Espen,
  • Lisa Shea,
  • Amy Linden.