P.J. Harvey

With this second album, Polly Jean Harvey's bare-bones rock trio faces the daunting challenge of pleasing the fickle and ultrahip crowd that lionized her first album, Dry (1992), and also winning a wider audience that isn't necessarily clamoring for the emotionally naked and sonically scabrous self-explorations of a very bold young woman. This time, P.J. Harvey has made a brave, fascinating record that retains the nervous intensity of the first album while proving that Harvey's early success, like that of Nirvana, was no fluke.

Appropriately enough, Steve Albini, the noise-loving producer of Nirvana's controversial and eagerly awaited next album, was chosen as producer. He basically seems to have put Harvey's band in front of the microphones and let them go at it, and the strategy works. In a deeper and more assured voice than before, Harvey whispers, bellows, pleads and exults as the guitars and drums throb and crash. The undiluted sound of punk is perfect for Harvey's nearly deranged dramatizations of anguish, anger, joy, confusion and panic. In "Rid of Me" the singer not only refuses to accept rejection but enslaves the rejecter with erotic servitude. "Dry" is a brutally frank complaint about sexual selfishness, but Harvey proves that she also has a wild sense of humor in "50Ft Queenie," a female riposte to every heavy-metal male boast. On these songs and others, the band swings and surprises, making rough art that bears repeated listening. (Island)

Jack Dejohnette

One of the world's most forceful and imaginative drummers, Dejohnette, 50, easily could have made another sleek, attractively muscular jazz-rock album like 1991's Earth-walk. Instead, he went a little nuts. Fifth World is part heavy metal, part jazz, part Native American ritual.

Five of Fifth World's nine songs are built around Native American chants (mostly in the Seneca tongue). But DeJohnette's hunger to combine took him further: He enlisted drummer Will Calhoun and guitarist Vernon Reid from the (extra) hard-rock band Living Colour, plus innovative jazz guitarist John Scofield. It's remarkable that this hybrid jells at all, but for the most part it potently synthesizes steel and clay, the electronic and the handmade.

On "Fifth World Anthem," a vocal choir soars, joyous and slightly ragtag, over Dejohnette's and Calhoun's boiling drums. The singers sound like an avant-garde cheerleading squad. On "Miles," the group could be one of Ornette Coleman's electric bands: dual guitars skittering on top, drums thundering below, the whole at once static and propulsive.

"Deception Blues" is musically strong, lyrically trite ("...poor people cry out in frustration/Against a sad situation"); Dejohnette's language is inadequate for his social outrage. "Two Guitar Chant" is Fifth World's most successful merger of Native American with jazz, the voices surfing over a streamlined fusion groove. And on "Aboriginal Dream Time," the whole multicultural gang ambles into the sunset, a merry, noisy crew aboard some demilitarized 21st-century Road Warrior jalopy. (Manhattan)

Midnight Oil

Everything about Australia's Midnight Oil is oversize, from its towering, bald, manic lead singer, Peter Garrett, to the full-throated activism of its lyrics, which raise a cry against racism, injustice and environmental destruction. A lesser band might sink under this weight, but Midnight Oil is saved by the expansiveness of its music.

The group's ninth album in 15 years is full of irresistible hooks and echoes of Cream, the Byrds, Black Sabbath and psychedelic-era Beatles. The sound is appealingly scuffed-up, live-sounding and varied in texture. As the rhythm section churns, guitars, piano, organ, harmonica and vocal harmonies take turns stepping to the fore.

As usual, most of the songs have an impassioned message: "Truganini," for instance, is about the subjugation of Australia's Aborigines in the 19th century. But for the most part, Garrett's lyrics avoid heavy-handedness. This is an album that evokes the hard-bitten terrain and frontier spirit of the band's native country. (Columbia)

Anthrax

Fury. Tension. A thunderous din. Another urban riot? No, just a new Anthrax record—and the best this New York City quintet has ever unleashed. As loud and ticked-off as ever, the band nonetheless has picked up on the Metallica-Soundgarden recipe for mixing metal with catchy hooks and melody. New singer John Bush (formerly of Armored Saint) may be the cause, or perhaps the guys are just getting older and wiser. Whatever, White Noise proves that a band can wade toward the mainstream and still thrash against the tide. (Eleklra)

Janet Jackson

Clocking in at 75 minutes and with a mind-boggling 28 tracks (15 songs, the rest spoken vignettes), Janet is often funky and graceful but ultimately numbing and exhausting. The saving grace is the always superlative production of Jackson's long-time cohorts, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who helped elevate her from Michael's kid sister to superstar.

As they did on the multiplatinum Control (1986) and Rhythm Nation (1989), Jam and Lewis surround Jackson's thin soprano with rhythms that easily leap from extra-thumpy deep house (the generic "Throb") to rap, industrial, lounge jazz, "a quiet storm" soft ballads and bubble-gum soul. Check out how they segue Jackson from the Sade-esque sway of the smash single "That's the Way Love Goes" into the pneumatic-drill-meets-Mo-town assault of "You Want This." It's R&B heaven.

Too bad Jackson herself is the least of what's interesting. Her girlish voice adds a vulnerability that complements the softer songs, but on tough, aggressive cuts, her multilayered vocals struggle against a flood of embellishment. The centerpiece is the gloriously overblown "This Time," a dizzying Sturm-und-Drang duet with opera diva Kathleen Battle. Janet is firmly in control. Not so on "American Agenda," with Public Enemy's Chuck D. going through the motions, and Janet earnest but lost. Despite its positives, Janet is too much of a not-good-enough thing. (Virgin)

>Polly Jean Harvey

TO SAVE HER VOICE, SHE'S SINGING OPERA

POLLY JEAN HARVEY, WHO GREW UP in the small village of Yeovil in Dorset, England, and still lives near her parents, says she's been "bombarded by music" since childhood. "My mother, who's a sculptress, felt that we were cut off in the countryside, so she organized concerts and brought bands from London—mostly blues bands," says the 23-year-old. "We housed and fed these musicians, and they felt they owed something, so to pay us back, they would give me lessons on the saxophone, drums and guitar. My mom liked Bob Dylan records too"—that's the most important reason P.J. plays "Highway 61" on the new album—"and my dad, a quarryman, liked the Rolling Stones."

After Dry, Harvey's first record, made her an underground star in England in 1991, "I was still living in the country, just one of the girls here in the villages. I thought I was handling it, but I finally got quite run-down, through the end of touring last year. After the tour, my voice was damaged, and the quality was changing as I got older. I don't want to destroy it by the time I'm 27, so I'm studying voice with a retired opera singer, singing Italian opera and learning to sing properly and make a pure sound. In any case, this summer will be our last tour as a three-piece band. I want to involve other people, other instruments. I believe in moving along and following our instincts. I've tried to avoid being lumped in with feminism because I don't feel qualified to label myself. I don't need it—I like to do things my way. All I'm doing as a musician is trying to find a way to make things less confusing."

  • Contributors:
  • Hal Espen,
  • Tony Scherman,
  • Craig Tomashoff,
  • Amy Linden.