Les Paul

Guitarist Les Paul is one of pop music's most enduring innovators. This fine four-CD set celebrates his seminal years as an artist, inventor and TV host—the decade between 1948 and 1958 when Paul and his wife, Mary Ford, produced a phenomenal string of hits that showed off his pioneering design and recording ideas.

Paul is noted for his invention of the solidbody electric guitar, which enabled him to create richer, rounder sounds than he could have with acoustic instruments. He is less well-known as the originator of multitrack recording and as a tireless experimenter with such sonic marvels as distortion, feedback, amplification and reverberation.

What emerged from all of this technological tinkering made everything Paul played sound like it was spilling from a champagne bottle. Effervescent is the word for both his own novelty numbers like "Walkin' & Whistlin' Blues" and his treatment of such standards as "How High the Moon," which reached No. 1 on the pop charts in 1951.

Featuring a staggering 75 songs, several snippets from the radio program Les Paul & Mary Ford at Home, advertising jingles, previously un-released recordings and a 68-page companion booklet that includes a track-by-track interview with Paul, this set is a must-have for fans of the man who began his music career at age 13 in Waukesha, Wis., with the showbiz name Red Hot Red.

Pop tunes that Paul picked up and "Les Paulverized" range from the Spanish-flavored "Vaya con Dios" and the Tin Pan Alley chestnut "Bye Bye Blues" to "Moritat," the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht theme from The Threepenny Opera. All have a high-pitched, light-as-air, speeded-up feel to them, as if they had been spun through a cotton-candy machine. That's even true of "Caravan," which Paul recorded so soon after being in a major car accident that he was still wearing a body cast—with his right arm set in guitar-playing position.

Paul's covers of these and all the other songs may occasionally sound nutty, but they are never boring. Listen to "Hip Billy Boogie," a Paul original played on a solidbody prototype he dubbed the Log, or to Mary Ford's silky-smooth vocals on "Mister Sandman," and you are almost ready to believe there is such a thing as good elevator music.

Ford died in 1977 at 53, but Paul, now 76 and living in Mahwah, N.J., still makes regular club appearances. His status as a living legend will only be enhanced by this valentine to his musical legacy. (Capitol)

Mark Chesnutt

By contrast to their eloquently cynical Nashville forebears, most of today's young male country singers tend to err on the side of de-emphasizing the negative. Chesnutt, a 28-year-old Texan, is a happy exception.

Consider the song titles in this second album: "Who Will the Next Fool Be?"; "Bubba Shot the Jukebox"; "Old Flames Have New Names"; "Uptown Downtown (Misery's All the Same)" (a tune written by Ron Peterson and Harlan Howard that is similar in tone to the current hit "Better Class of Losers," by another neo-curmudgeon, Randy Travis,) and "Talkin' to Hank," a fantasy about Hank Williams Sr. offering such advice as "Well, you know you better get your hat, son, and get on out of the way when they start hating love and loving to hate."

Chesnutt, backed by such studio stalwarts as steel-guitarist Paul Franklin, sings these laments in a musical baritone that lacks only the deeper signs of Jonesian or Nelsonian world-weariness. So what if his voice is insufficiently grizzled? His heart is in the right place: lying by the side of the road, all stomped-on and bleeding. (MCA)

Rosemary Clooney

There is a feeling of trust and confidence when tuning into Clooney. You know from long, lovely experience that the voice will be like dark jam, that the musicianship will be superb and that the lyrics—dispensed with great clarity—will be dealt with wisely and well. Further, you know that the choice of material will be pretty close to impeccable and that Clooney will be surrounded by fine musicians.

So it is with Girl Singer, which, while essentially a compilation of such standards as "The Best Is Yet to Come," "More than You Know" and "Autumn in New York," steps off the track with Dave Frishberg's wistful, delectable "Sweet Kentucky Ham" and with the album's one very easily forgettable entry, the trite "We Fell in Love Anyway" ("The moon wasn't shining/ The stars weren't bright/ It was a rainy, late autumn night...").

What's particularly rewarding about Clooney, now 63, is that she brings a sense of freshness and discovery to even the most familiar songs. You could swear in the case, say, of "Autumn in New York" that Clooney was having her very first experience with fall in Manhattan and its infinite promise. And "From This Moment On," which seems to be taking its usual propulsive turn, suddenly switches tempo and slows down to an almost syncopated beat when Clooney reprises the verse. The album closes out with "The Best Is Yet to Come." That's not quite correct; the best is already here. (Concord)"

Concrete Blonde

The past couple of years cannot have been easy ones for Johnette Napolitano. The supremely talented singer-songwriter had seen her band, Concrete Blonde, grow from obscure L.A. punks to Top 40 hitmakers with the single "Joey" from the 1990 Blonde album, Bloodletting. Now she is flirting creatively and fiscally with the one thing her streetwise attitude seemed to abhor most: success.

The pressure was on for a follow-up release that progressed musically yet would not upset the fans who had already discovered the band. Rather than bow to those demands, she has taken the angst and channeled it into the intense rock on this, the group's fourth record.

Napolitano is Iggy Pop after a sex change, her strained shrieks making every desperate lyric sound like it may be her last. Hers seems to be a cruel world, where lovers are just emotional muggers. The throbbing guitars on dark, edgy rockers like "City Screaming" and "Ghost of a Texas Ladies' Man" add to the tension.

What makes Walking in London a step forward from the sinister Bloodletting, though, are the lighter moments. "Someday?" is a surprisingly low-key, bittersweet tune that has even more Top 40 potential than "Joey." And in the album closer, a cover of James Brown's "It's a Man's World," the band goes bluesy as Napolitano turns the tune's macho swagger into a feminist lament.

It surely wasn't easy to do, but with Walking in London, Napolitano has given listeners what they wanted. And then given them a little more. (I.R.S.)

  • Contributors:
  • Lisa Shea,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Joanne Kaufman,
  • Craig Tomashoff.