Poi Dog Pondering

There's nothing wrong with being sincere, sweet and cute. Yet these qualities, without the spark of ingenuity, qualify a band more for charity work than for recording a pop album. Despite several songs that express an exuberant love of life, this second major-label release by Poi Dog Pondering is a dud. The Austin, Texas-based octet launched a tidal wave of hype with its previous album, perhaps because people liked the sound of the band's nonsensical moniker. Now Poi Dog's rep threatens to haunt them.

The music, sounding similar to Jimmy Buffett on near-beer instead of margaritas, labors to be easygoing. Lead singer Frank Orrall, an ex-resident of the 50th state, tries to enliven some of the folk-rock tunes with a Hawaiian punch. As a result, many songs start to resemble a pu pu platter of jokey musical effects, adorned with the sound of tap dancing or an orchestra tuning up. When Orrall drops his usual laid-back mode to croon with conviction, the lyrics (he writes most of the band's material) never rise above the level of fortune-cookie homilies. "This big world is for everyone," he sings, as if someone other than Leona Helmsley might find this surprising.

The inoffensive single "U Li La Lu" wants to be an "O-bla-di, O-bla-da" for the '90s, but lacking irony, it flounders in the nudge-wink style of McCartney's lesser solo inventions. A song like this might work magic when the Poi Dogs perform on street corners, as is their habit. It just isn't strong enough to justify asking record buyers to throw money too. (CBS)

Melba Moore

Most of this album consists of routine-to-enjoyable pop soul, with Moore applying her strikingly clear and strong voice to such mid-tempo romantic tunes as "Do You Really Want My Love," "I Love Being in Love," "New Love," "Don't You Want to Be My Lover" and the aptly titled "Too Many Lovers." (She also does an overwrought version of "Stormy Weather" that won't make anyone forget Lena Home.)

Everything else, however, seems inconsequential next to an epic version of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," a 90-year-old hymn known in the black community as "The Negro National Anthem." In the liner notes, film director Spike Lee says of the song, " 'The Negro National Anthem' represents the dignity, strength and hope of the African-American people, as well as our faith in our struggles for four centuries."

The song, written by early NAACP executive secretary James Weldon Johnson and his brother J. Rosamond, is uncommonly powerful, graceful and eloquent: "Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us/ Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us." And Moore, who among her other volunteer activities is national chairperson for the National Council of Negro Women membership drive, enlisted a remarkable array of black I celebrities to perform the song with her, including Stevie Wonder, Bobby Brown, Anita Baker, Take 6, Dionne Warwick, Jeffrey Osborne and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

There are two versions of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" on the album. One has fewer guest performers—they seem a bit more as if they're pulling background chorus duty. By far the more moving is the mix in which, after Jackson's invocation, they all take turns soloing, "We Are the World" style. While the song is most specific in addressing the experiences and aspirations of black Americans, its lessons of pride and integrity carry a message for everyone. (Capitol)

Eddy Grant

A Briton of Guyanese heritage, Grant has been recording since the '60s, first with a group called the Equals and then as a solo act, scoring one big hit seven years ago with "Electric Avenue." He's still banging around in studios, making records where he plays most of the instruments himself, singing in that rough, town crier's voice and producing uneven yet quite often intriguing music.

This is Grant's best effort since 1983's Killer on the Rampage. It contains the sunny, infectious "Gimme Hope Jo'anna," done in the Caribbean dance style, soca; the pretty palm-tree ballad "Talk About Love"; the strut of "We Got to Work It Out"; the herky-jerky calypso of "The Youth Tom Tom"; and even a silly country ramble, "Sweet on the Road."

The corker is "Welcome to La Tigre," a strange combination that could best be described as Gallic reggae. That's Grant for you, playing around with a bunch of different styles. He may bomb out once in a while, but he's rarely boring. (Enigma)

Steve Vai

Faster than a speeding bullet. That's Vai's claim to fame. You may know him as the hired guitarslinger for such chart-climbers as David Lee Roth or Whitesnake. You may recognize him as the devil's favorite musician in the film Crossroads. Once you've heard him play, his handiwork is unmistakable. His quicksilver fingers fly across those frets like a centipede on a hot plate.

Countering expectations, this solo album is not all hammer-and-anvil rock. Many of its 14 songs are surprisingly progressive. Vai's experimentation works at times, as on the pixieish, finger-picked "Ballerina 12/24" or on the sinuous, guitar-braided "The Riddle." It fails at others, such as the portentous "Liberty," which sounds like a towering, blustery version of the Beatles' "With a Little Help from My Friends."

Vai is still most in his element on such rockers as "Erotic Nightmares," the Van Halenesque "I Would Love To," the metallic "The Animal" and the full-body slam of "The Audience Is Listening." He shows off his hyperspeed abilities best on "For the Love of God" and "Blue Powder."

What keeps his tornado technique from trampling all over the listener is that he folds dreamy, gentle interludes into some of these instrumental sprints. When he's cranked up (which is most of the time), though, his stunning style comes at you so frenziedly that it's like sticking your finger in an electric socket. It's a jolt, all right, but listen at your own peril. (Relativity)

Elvis Presley

On Dec. 4, 1956, rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins was finishing up a session at the Sun Records studio in Memphis. Elvis Presley walked in as the playback was being heard and gave a thumbs up to Mr. "Blue Suede Shoes." Behind the piano was a young fireball named Jerry Lee Lewis, whom Sun founder Sam Phillips had recently recruited to fill out Perkins's dime-thin rockabilly sound.

As the story goes, Johnny Cash was also in town to cut a record, and Phillips called the young country star and asked him to drop on by. It turns out that Cash never actually sang on the resultant impromptu jam session, but in preserving the tradition of rock fables, someone wanted people to think this All-Star foursome made some magic in the studio that December afternoon, and the Million Dollar Quartet was born after the fact.

Even RCA Records acknowledges that Cash was only in attendance at a photo session, not as a performer. But even though this is the record of only a Million Dollar trio, there are some special moments. Presley's voice dominates almost every song. Perkins sings lead only once, on "Keeper of the Key." Of the 41 tracks, however, less than half are long enough to be considered full-fledged songs. Most are just twenty or thirty seconds of Elvis singing a line from a Bill Monroe song such as "I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling" or an old gospel traditional, as the others pick a harmony line and chime in. Everybody sounds in fine form, but it gets frustrating when the threesome starts getting into a groove and then just stops, only to engage in a little studio chatter and then launch into another abbreviated number.

When they do hang in there for an entire song, the melding of their voices and the excitement of just hearing these three idiosyncratic performers together is a rare treat. They shine on Homer Morris's "I Shall Not Be Moved" and on the longest of three versions of "Don't Be Cruel," Jerry Lee's boogie-woogie piano drives the song and gives it a honky-tonk feel. The trio's stripped-down rendition of "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" fills up a room better than any old Bourbon Street jazz band playing for the tourists.

The trio/ quartet business still seems like a cheat. But there's enough talent here to compensate for the deceptive advertising and the nagging stop-and-start singing. It's like a time traveler's glimpse of the beginnings of the new style of music that became rock and roll. (RCA)

Robin Lee

Circumstances seem to have been conspiring a little against Lee's first major album release. The title track is the very same Chris Ward-David Tyson tune Canadian Alannah Myles has had a hit with; another song on the album, Bonnie Hayes's bluesy "Love Letter," is the same one Bonnie Raitt sang so smartly on Nick of Time.

Lee has, as it develops, turned what could have been an unhappy coincidence into a virtue, showing that she can be as tantalizing as Raitt and as sultry (without trying quite so hard) as Myles.

Most of the rest of this album tends toward mainstream country (Lee was born in Nashville), including such cleverly turned songs as "Till I Get It Right" (Wall Aldridge-Lisa Angelle), as in "I'm going to keep on leavin' you/ Till I get it right." Lee rarely imposes herself on any of these songs. At times it might be a better idea if she did impose herself more, in fact. What she does do well, though, is bring out the best in her material, like a good cook who makes every morsel of food count. (Atlantic)

Tackhead

This record is bookended by two sections of "Ska Trek," a bullgoose gonzo taste of Caribbean horns written by Prince Buster. Don't expect to find anything very familiar in the eight songs in between, either. Tack-head is made up of the instrumental core of bass player Doug Wimbish, guitarist Skip McDonald and drummer Keith LeBlanc, three sought-after session players who helped put rap on the map, plus mixmaster Adrian Sherwood and vocalist Bernard Fowler. Drifting between acid house and funk, they wield an ironic indignation on tracks like "Stealing," which takes greedy evangelists to task and "Airborne Ranger," a none too alluring recruiting theme.

The salient component in Tackhead's strong, unique sound is Sherwood's cut-and-paste, drum-till-you-drop mixes. Like Fishbone, the L.A. ska-funk-punk band, this group is having fun with the music and still making it kick. Also like Fishbone, they have a fierce sound and attitude, but not one that is melodically inviting. (TVT)

Marcus Roberts

Following up his much-praised 1988 debut album, The Truth Is Spoken Here, jazz pianist Roberts has teamed with some confreres from the Wynton Marsalis band and a few heady young newcomers to produce this elegant, energetic album.

Containing six of his own blues-based compositions, the album ranges from the moody, 11-minute title track to the Monk-inspired "E. Dankworth," with Roberts paying particular attention to the nuances, phrasings and spirit of fundamental 12-bar blues.

Roberts first states strongly melodic thematic progressions, then extends them, using complex chord changes, harmonies and interludes that honor the form and feel of improvisation even when they are carefully scored. Displaying a substantial taste for the scholarly delights of modern jazz composition, Roberts wrote each number in a different key. What you hear behind the earthy blues and swing coloring is pure sophistication.

These are tunes that ripen with multiple listenings, and you'll want to go back to "Spiritual Awakening" for its hymnlike majesty and to "Nebuchadnezzar" for its Middle Eastern-derived exotic sound or to "The Governor" for its sweetly savage swing-time beat.

Featured sidemen include tenor sax players Herb Harris and Todd Williams, trumpeters Scotty Barnhard and E. Dankworth. bassist Chris Thomas and drummer Maurice Carnes; all but Williams arc making their recording debuts.

Marsalis gave Roberts his first big break when he asked him to replace Kenny Kirk-land in his band in 1985. Since then, Roberts has been touring and recording, continuing his studies "deep in the shed," to use the musicians' term for on-the-job training. He's a great endorsement for the earn-while-you-learn school of education. (Novus/RCA)

  • Contributors:
  • Michael Small,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • David Hiltbrand,
  • Andrew Abrahams,
  • Lisa Shea.