Clint Black

Considering that he's an artist so closely associated with "new" country, the most striking thing about Clint Black's latest album is how old-fashioned it sounds. At every turn there's a barrage of fiddles, dobros and honky-tonk pianos. At a time when too many country folk are fleeing from pedal-steel guitars in the mad scramble for that pop-crossover line, Black continues to keep the traditional flame burning bright.

Of course, as a lyricist he has long been at the forefront of change in country music. From his very first hit, 1989's "A Better Man"—in which a failed relationship is viewed as a positive growth experience—Black has been challenging many of country's longest-standing male-female myths. That continues here with "Half the Man," on which Black proudly notes that "I'm what she's made of me/ She's half the man I am," and with "A Bad Goodbye," his two-sides-to-every-love-story hit duet with Wynonna.

Still, the strength of the album stems from Black's sturdy belief in the power of that old boot-scootin' country twang. Few stars bestow their sidemen with as much instrumental space as Black does. When you hear such seasoned pros as dobroist Jerry Douglas and fiddler Stuart Duncan rambling with wild abandon on the Western-swinging "I'll Take Texas," or the breathless "Tuckered Out," you realize that for artists like Black, old-fashioned can easily hold its own against new-fangled. (RCA)

Run-D.M.C.

After the stark opening beats of Run-D.M.C—the Queens, N.Y., trio's landmark 1984 debut album—hit the airwaves, rap was never quite the same. Run-D.M.C.—now touring with Dr. Dre—was the first hip-hop group to take the sound of the streets and put it in the studio, and their music and attitude set the standard for the style.

But after selling more records (11 million) than any other rap group in history, Run-D.M.C. lost its ability, in the early '90s, to make music that made sense on the streets and on the charts. This much anticipated comeback album—the group's seventh—isn't a breakthrough, but it is still rock-solid hip-hop. The trio has wisely collaborated with some of the genre's biggest names.

The title track (and hit single) features the production team of Pete Rock and CL Smooth, who pay homage to the past, quoting Run-D.M.C.'s classic "Sucker MCs," and infuse the work with dense R&B-flavored beats. Also on board as producers are the Bomb Squad (with the savage "Ooh, Whatcha Gonna Do") and Naughty By Nature, Q-Tip and EPMD, who kick in on the suitably funkified "Can I Get It, Yo."

Lyrically, Down with the King focuses on Run-D.M.C.'s two favorite subjects: themselves and God (you didn't think "the King" referred to Elvis, did you?). The album takes a few bad turns, stumbling big-time with the pedantic "Big Willie" and the lifeless dance-hall cut "What's Next," featuring reggae rap's Mad Cobra: a definite mismatch. But overall, this is an impressive partnership between the masters and those they've influenced. (Profile)

Diane Schuur

Schuur has an industrial-strength voice that on previous outings has been deployed with the shrill careless abandon of one who knows there is more where that came from. Force beat out finesse, and listeners could not be blamed for wanting to take cover.

So it is refreshing to report that this album spotlights a more restrained, reflective Schuur. The impressive, jazz-tinged voice is in place, but it is used with taste and infinite sensitivity. From first cut ("When I Fall in Love") to last ("My One and Only Love") and every number in between (among them, "Speak Low" and a hauntingly lovely "September in the Rain"), Schuur is in control of the material—and in service to it. But when the occasion calls for it, the singer lets fly, most effectively on "You'll See" and "Crazy." (GRP)

>Clint Black

REDEFINING THE COWBOY IN LOVE

"I LIKE TO MAKE TRADITIONAL albums that still show the influence of pop and rock," says Clint Black, 31, speaking from the L.A. home he shares with his wife, actress Lisa Hartman, 37. "I started out playing bass in my brother Kevin's band: he was into '50s bebop, the guitar player was into the Psychedelic Furs, and the drummer was into all kinds of jazz. One minute I'd be doing Yes licks on the bass, the next minute 'Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother.' "

Black says that his interest in different styles of music has helped him define his own. "When you've heard extremes, from Hank Williams to Frank Zappa, it's real easy to know how a country song should sound."

The performer attributes his knack for authoring some of country's most enlightened love songs to his strong feelings about the need for understanding in relationships. "I always try to imagine myself in the situation I'm writing about: to be strong but vulnerable, and capable of being hurt but not of being crushed," he says. "The same thing has to be true for the other person, or it doesn't warrant a song. If the person I'm singing about is a heel, then what am I crying for?

"When I hear lyrics like, 'You kicked me in the teeth, stole my truck and left, then you came back and burned the house down and left again, oh, please come home! I mean, get a clue! You need to cry over something that matters, and you have to be able to move on. That's what 'A Better Man' is all about. Hey—that's what life is all about."

  • Contributors:
  • Billy Altman,
  • Amy Linden,
  • Joanne Kaufman.