Mary-Chapin Carpenter

Even when she is not singing something as immediately infectious and commercial as "Down at the Twist and Shout," Carpenter, the Judy Collins of her generation, has an ingratiating way with a country-pop song.

Her fourth album includes the characteristically vivacious, topical bar song "I Feel Lucky," which Carpenter wrote with Don Schlitz. There is also a Carpenter-Schlitz contribution to the current Nashville trend to celebrate romantic longevity, "He Thinks He'll Keep Her"; Mark Knopfler's "The Bug"; and Lucinda Williams's earthy "Passionate Kisses," an ideal vehicle for Carpenter's heated-up, husky voice.

Joe Diffie appears for a not-overly-cute duet on the fence-mending song, "Not Too Much to Ask." And throughout, the melodious electric guitars of John Jorgenson complement Carpenter's always tuneful singing. (Columbia)

Various artists

Children's Television Workshop has superseded the Disney operation in many ways, and this collection is an example. The 1981 CTW album, Sesame Country, which included such Nashville—Sesame Street collaborations as a delightful Crystal Gayle-Big Bird duet, was a much better introduction to country music for young people. This all-star project doesn't even enlist any Disney stars to help kids make the transition from nursery rhyme ditties to crying-in-your-milk Nashville pop (wouldn't a duet between Donald Duck and Willie Nelson have been something to hear?).

There are some sweetly pleasant folky tunes, such as Emmylou Harris's wistful version of the classic "On the Wings of Horses." And Patty Loveless does a sprightly job with "So Many Questions. So Little Time," by the album's producers, Jay Levy and Herb Pedersen. Pedersen's vocal on "Clean Room Blues" is fun too, as is the traditional "Bingo" by Merle Haggard (though even he can't overcome that tune's tedious nature).

Other guest performers include Karl Scruggs, den Campbell, the Oak Ridge PONS and Buck Owens (sounding distinctive even on "If You Can't Find a Reason to Be Happy"). But where is Goofy? And Thumper? And Uncle Scrooge? (Walt Disney)

Steve Wynn

On the freeway of rock and roll, crowded with slick sports cars that look good but have nothing under the hood, Steve Wynn's music is a rust-ed-out Dodge Dart. The ride may not be a smooth one, but it's a lot more fun.

This is Wynn's second solo effort since splitting from his old band, the Dream Syndicate, and his music is still vintage American stuff. No synthesizers or drum programs here. It's the perfect sound for dingy barrooms, teetering on the edge of pop, rock, folk and country but never sliding squarely into any of those slots.

The eccentric love song "Tuesday" for example, bounces along with all the verve of a '60s Top 40 hit as Wynn tosses off flaky lines like, "Any day but Tuesday/ I'd gladly walk through fire." Then along comes the dark rock of the title track, an angry indictment of the Gulf War driven by thunderous percussion and vicious guitar licks.

Still later, Wynn spins off "As It Should Be," a gentle song of romantic regret that floats through the air like a wreath of smoke, thanks to a sweet organ-and-mandolin chorus. Dazzling Display will take you where you want to go long after more fashionable models get junked. (RNA)

The Charlatans UK

At the dawn of the '90s, MTV introduced a new type of British band—the cute Manchester lads with bowl-shaped locks and a psychedelic '60s musical mood. While the Roses won the critical acclaim and Happy Mondays indulged in rock-star hedonism, the pouty Charlatans became the movement's poster boys, New Kids on the Block for the relatively serious-minded set.

With their second release, the Charlatans seem less fanzine idols than sober artistes. Hammond organ flourishes, indie groove and trippy aura and Tim Burgess' fey vocals remain, and the songs still sport a good though non-danceable beat. But the melodies are crisper, tougher and no longer finding their way through a thick fog. The jaded lyrics, too, have a bit more bite. With this release, it appears that the Charlatans have not only outgrown their haircuts but escaped becoming another casualty of pop music's hype machine. (Beggars Banquet/RCA)

"Weird Al" Yankovic

Yankovic, with his predatory sense of who is weak and can be preyed upon, didn't lake long to pounce on the pretentious rock group Nirvana with his "Smells Like Nirvana," a dead-on send-up of Nirvana's self-consciously enigmatic hit "Smells Like Teen Spirit." While Yankovic is probably a better singer than Nirvana's lead vocalist Kurt Cobain and certainly has better diction, he convincingly slurs things up at times: "Sing distinctly?/ We don't wanna/ Buy our album/ We're Nirvana. And Yankovic's social satire is often as trenchant as his music parodies. "Trigger Happy," for instance, zeroes in nicely on gun fanciers: "There's no feeling any greater/ Than to shoot first and ask questions later."

The cut "When I Was Your Age" takes on pontificating parents: "Let me tell you something/ You whiny little snot/ There's something wrong with all you kids today/ You just don't appreciate all the things you got/ We were hungry, broke and miserable/ And we liked it that way." "I Can't Watch This" combines parody and satire, taking on Hammer's "You Can't Touch This" and television.

Yankovic takes it relatively easy on rap and totally spares the genre's most obvious target, Vanilla Ice (though Ice comes in for transitory dissection in another track, the medley "Polka Your Eyes Out"). And hard-core Yankovic fans may be surprised and disappointed that he didn't dig into the eminently spoofable Garth Brooks. But their Al still hasn't mellowed, even if he has put his "weird" in quotation marks. (Scotti Bros.)

Alyson Williams

On her 1989 debut R&B album, Raw, Williams proved herself equally formidable amid new-jack and torch-ballad settings. Here, she settles into a mostly down-tempo groove, pouring plenty of soul into each syllable. Gliding gracefully from a throaty wail to a sensuous purr, she is every inch a singer's singer.

Once again Williams has love on her mind. She sings of starry-eyed bliss ("So Special" and "Heaven"), laments in a lost-him-to-my-best-friend weeper ("Everybody Knew But Me") and shreds the competition ("Can't Have My Man"), which she makes more warning than plea.

Alyson Williams is best when the singer ventures into jazzy, bluesy or even gospel-influenced terrain. Unfortunately the quiet-storm synthesized arrangements rob some songs of dimension, giving them an almost toylike quality. But when Williams makes such candid sexual demands as "Before you go to work, baby/ Make sure I'm fed" sound classy, you almost want to blame her producers for any shortcomings. (OBR/Columbia)

  • Contributors:
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Craig Tomashoff,
  • Jeremy Helligar.