Joan Jett & the Blackhearts

A black, mostly leather, circulation-strangling wardrobe. A contemptuous expression. Guitars cranked up over the pain threshold. These are staples of rock and roll as we know it. Joan Jett was championing them back when, say, Skid Row's Sebastian Bach still thought groupies were a type of big flat fish.

But with this album, Jett, a usually reliable wielder of the raw and rugged, loses her bearings, wandering into the pastel lobby of the Hotel California.

Let's assign part of the fault for this squishy collection to la-la pop composer Desmond ("We All Sleep Alone") Child. He cowrote half the songs. The only interesting thing about their work is that on such tracks as "Ashes in the Wind" and "Goodbye" they devised a misbegotten new song-strain: the thunder ballad.

The blasé "Lie to Me" only reinforces Jett's vocal limitations. Even on the starchier songs with Child—"The Only Good Thing" with its heavy backbeat, say—Jett sounds curiously uncommitted. She gets so dizzy she even grafts a faux-vaudeville coda—more Rudy Vallee than Jon Bon Jovi—onto her own song "Machismo."

Now, collaboration isn't always a bad idea for Jett. It resulted in one superb song on this album, "Backlash," which Jett wrote with Paul Westerberg of the Replacements, who plays guitar on the track. Westerberg's rock disarray complements Jett's saucy snarl.

Paul, you can stay. But keep Desmond's blandishments away from our Ms. Jett. (Epic)

3rd Bass

For New York City rappers MC Serch (Michael Benin) and Prime Minister Pete Nice (Peter Nash), the message rides the rhythm. This spare but insinuating follow-up to The Cactus Album is light on melodies (even by rap standards), heavy on beat.

That means there's little musical distraction from the rhetorical flow—neatly metered rhymes, all couched in street vernacular and studded with pop references, including shampoo and hardware chain commercials. And this has to be the first hip-hop album to sample snippets of Edith Bunker.

The pair has fun with an ascholastic alphabet lesson: "Al'z A-B-Ceez." But mostly they're as serious as repo men.

One of their primary concerns is decrying the commercialization and dilution of rap. As you might surmise, that means they spend time dissing Vanilla Ice. Granted, it's ironic two white boys have become defenders of the rap standard, but maybe the unalloyed purity of 3rd Bass's style entitles them. (Columbia)

Ricky Skaggs

Skaggs is a fine country musician and singer, but he doesn't know how to have a mid-life crisis.

Here he is, 37, just at the age when he ought to be thinking about running off with Madonna. Instead he seems obsessed with long-term values and the emotional considerations of father-child relationships—this album includes "Father Knows Best" and "Give Us a Happy Home" (a d-i-v-o-r-c-e tune) as well as the title track.

Skaggs even adds a sweet marriage-touting duet with his wife, Sharon White, "Hold On Tight (Let It Go)." Under the circumstances, Ivy Bryant's normally raucous "Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line," on which Skaggs buddies up happily with Waylon Jennings, takes on a certain tone of domesticity.

Ah, well, the relationship counselor's loss is the country music fan's gain. This is a lively, artfully played and consistently pleasurable album, if nothing else confirming that you can make good country music without once staring a hole in the bottom of your shot glass. (Epic)

Anita O'Day

Listen to Keely Smith and you'll hear shades of Anita O'Day. Listen to Chris Connor or June Christy and hear Anita O'Day. Listen to Anita O'Day and hear a great jazz vocalist.

This collection of songs was recorded more than 25 years ago, after O'Day had ended her days as a big-band singer with Gene Krupa and Stan Kenton. It displays in full measure her rich, husky voice and phrasing reminiscent of Billie Holliday. The songs range from such romping numbers as "Hi Ho Trailus Boot Whip" (a nonsense hip-talk novelty) to such classics as "How High the Moon," on which O'Day lets fly with three or four tempo changes.

Best by far, though, are the tough-talking title cut; "Malaguena," scatted from start to finish; and the lush, lovely "Key Largo," in an arrangement by the song's composer, Benny Carter.

The album's lapses have nothing to do with the singer, but with whoever left unnamed many of its composers, lyricists and musicians. On this project, everyone involved deserves credit. (Sony)

Big Audio Dynamite II

Summer 1991 may be remembered as the time when Americans debated an urgent issue: Which is better, The Terminator or Terminator 2? So, for the record, let it be known that a few freethinkers have turned their thoughts to other crucial topics, such as: Which is better, Big Audio Dynamite or Big Audio Dynamite II?

Like so many quandaries in American history, this one comes to us via London, England, home of Mick Jones, the scruffy-voiced rocker formerly of the Clash.

After financial squabbles led him to quit the Clash in 1983, Jones created the first Big Audio Dynamite (BAD) an innovative group that mixed rock with an urban dance beat and electronic effects. Two years ago, the old Dynamite exploded—musical disharmony was the explanation. Jones soon formed BAD II with three new cohorts, including Chris Kavanagh, once a drummer for Sigue Sigue Sputnik.

Though the first BAD was darn good, the new BAD II is better. The group revives the Clash's joyful energy and sneaks far-out experiments into its mass-appeal pop music.

Manipulating a variety of sound bytes—a snippet of keyboard from a Who song, a yelp from a Clash song—they add fresh snap to typical dance rhythms. Jones's timing holds each song together, even when the beat disintegrates into an esoteric taped discussion or an odd electric flourish.

Now in his mid-30s, Jones has shifted his focus from youthful rebellion to a more mature restlessness. He glances backward wistfully in "Rush," for instance, confessing that his life's driving force has been a need for constant change. Whereas old Clash songs called for political action, Jones keeps his social comment vague now and is more tolerant of escapist pop music.

Ah-nold from Austria may have bigger biceps, but the mastermind of BAD II outmuscles Schwarzenegger in the battle to make a better sequel. (Columbia)

Wynton Marsalis

Ponce de Leon never found the Fountain of Youth, but jazz did, and it spouts indigo.

Marsalis' three-album exploration of the blues celebrates the joy and profundity in that inexhaustible form. The 16 compositions—13 by the leader—pay abstract tribute to several kinds of blues-tinged heroes: historical (Harriet Tubman), musical (the drummer Elvin Jones, who plays on Vol. I) and mythical (the Uptown Ruler, a spiritual healer and wise man who is a legend in New Orleans, Marsalis' hometown). The albums show how malleable the blues continue to be: This is music as sophisticated as it is soulful.

The best way to appreciate the consistency and depth of Soul Gestures in Southern Blue is to hear it straight through. (You'll need an evening, preferably after a payday: Each volume is priced as a single disc.) On beautiful performances by Marsalis—his solos shapely and heartfelt—and his gifted colleagues, the three discs flow together like one unbroken album.

Volume I, Thick in the South, features the robust Joe Henderson on tenor sax, along with Marsalis vets Marcus Roberts (piano), Bob Hurst (bass) and Jeff Watts (drums). (Jones is on two cuts.) Volume II, Uptown Ruler, is performed by Marsalis' quintet—Roberts, Todd Williams (sax), Reginald Veal (bass) and Herlin Riley (drums). Vol. Ill, Levee Low Moan, adds saxophonist Wessell Anderson.

As teacher, composer, bandleader, trumpeter and consultant (for Lincoln Center's jazz department), Marsalis, 29, has proven to be as imaginative and perspicacious as he is prolific. He is, in fact, so prolific that by the time he gets around to releasing his albums, they're almost time capsules. This set was recorded in 1987-88. But the music hasn't at all gone stale in the can.

So how do you choose among the three discs, if you're not ready to splurge? With its down-home grooves and dancing horns, Levee, the third volume, delights instantly. The first two take longer to crack, but their treasures in the end may be richer.

Thick is forceful, cerebral, sensual. Uptown, more introspective, may also be the most ambitious—not just the middle album but the project's spiritual fulcrum. If none of this helps, just close your eyes and grab one. You can't go wrong. (Columbia)

>"FREE LOVE" VOICE FARM Far and away 1991's best party record, it mixes the dance grooves of Deee-Lite with a kitschy collection of vocal samples. It's the aural equivalent of a John Waters movie. From Bigger Cooler Weirder (Morgan Creek)

"HOBBIES" DAVID SANBORN A happy-go-lucky little groove written by NRBQ's Terry Adams is bent just enough to give the saxophonist a clear shot at lift-off. From Another Hand (Elektra)

  • Contributors:
  • David Hiltbrand,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Joanne Kaufman,
  • Michael Small,
  • Eric Levin.