Lori Carson

One of the great mysteries in pop music (apart from the success of John Tesh) is why Carson isn't a bigger star. Her pensive, velvety voice comes vibrantly to life in all kinds of' settings: alternative-rock tunes, jazz arrangements, even slow-boiling love songs, and she never has to scream to get the emotional spigot flowing. Her voice has a lonesome, laid-back charm that blends the weary soulfulness of Sade with the youthful spunk of Jewel.

Although Carson already has two fine solo albums under her belt, she's still best known for her vocal work on-two albums by the Golden Palominos. On Everything I Touch, a rambling soft-rock collection recorded in the bedroom of her Manhattan apartment with just a guitar, accordion and a few other acoustic instruments, she makes her best bid at scoring some long overdue recognition. These unadorned songs about loneliness, loss and the unpredictability of love allow her radiant voice to shine through. In this age of studio trickery, it's refreshing to hear a real singer. (Restless)

Various Artists

After years of being the maligned bastard child of pop, dance music is finally getting its due. And just in time to reap the benefits of the groove's new appreciation is an ambitious collection called Nuyorican Soul.

The brainchild of producers "Little" Louie Vega and Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez, Nuyorican Soul harkens back to the 1970s glory days of labels like Sal-soul and Philadelphia International by joyfully combining disco, house, Latin jazz, salsa and R&B. Onboard are some of the best practitioners of all those genres, including George Benson, who adds his distinctive fretwork and scatting to the jazzy "You Can Do It (Baby)." There are also Roy Ayers, Tito Puente and the current queen of salsa, India, who tears into the disco standard "Runaway." Brimming with great tunes, stellar playing and an infectious attitude, Nuyorican Soul is a tribute to the timeless power of rhythm—and proof that it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. (Giant Step/Blue Thumb)

Gina G

One look at Gina G's chocolate-covered devil-woman pose on the cover of her debut album, and it's clear that this Aussie newcomer (who, by the way, is no relation to saxman Kenny G or rapper Warren G) has mastered the art of sex appeal. But you'd never know that judging solely by her music: a squeaky-clean Euro-disco blend of rushing synth melodies, chirpy vocals and dial-a-hook lyrics (like "I wanna get fresh/ With you, baby/I wanna do all the things that turn you on"), with a winsome ballad or two thrown in for variety. Don't be surprised to find yourself high on the giddiness of impossibly catchy numbers like "Follow the Light" and "Gimme Some Love," but you might not remember either of them in the morning.

Gina G doesn't realize her full potential until it's almost too late. She waits until the very end of Fresh! to drop a bottom-heavy reprise of her recent Top 20 hit "Ooh Aah...Just a Little Bit," which lives up to the title's (and the cover's) intimation of sweet desire by adding a dusky undercurrent and a teasing touch of sultriness to the original mix. Too bad she didn't freshen up the rest of her debut with just a little bit more of that. (Eternal/ Warner Bros.)

INXS

It's not that this is a bad disc. Just unnecessary. INXS has been around for about 20 years now, and the Australian band certainly hasn't lost a step after nine studio albums. The problem is, they haven't picked up the pace much either. During the late '80s, INXS perfected a hybrid of dance beats and mainstream rock that may not have been particularly innovative but was at least a fair amount of fun. Elegantly Wasted has plenty of tunes that would have sounded right a decade ago, like the title track and "Don't Lose Your Head," both of which feature a fluff-ball blend of keyboards and guitar. Yet if you've heard this music before, which plenty of people have, there's not that much reason to listen to it again. (Mercury)

Son Volt

As the title implies, Son Volt's sophomore effort is something of a road album. And the highway captured by the country-rockers is remarkably bleak—a shattered landscape where life has all the substance and meaning of a windblown tumble-weed. Take it from the murdered woman in "Been Set Free," who is more than eager to bid farewell to life. Then there's perpetually morose songwriter-guitarist Jay Farrar himself, who reminds us in "Creosote" that no matter how desperately you may seek a higher reason, "fate just runs you around." At this rate, Son Volt could become the house band for generation existential.

It's hard not to like the band's raw country sound, with its blend of fiddles, lap steel and crunchy guitar. Farrar has a distinct vision, and like Wilco—the other band that grew from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo—Son Volt isn't afraid to follow its muse beyond stylistic boundaries. Yet the relentless desolation eventually makes for a monotonous ride. (Warner Bros.)

Gil Shaham/Orli Shaham

Anything wrong with easy classical listening? Not at all. The talented, showy violin soloist Gil Shaham (a few critics have emphasized the "ham"), 25, and his pianist sister Orli, 21, here perform pieces by Antonín Dvo?ák (1841-1904), several of which the Czech composer wrote for his own son and daughter to play. Included are a traditional, characteristically melodic Sonata op. 57, four violin-friendly Romantic Pieces op. 75 and the mature but folk-songy Sonatina op. 100, whose slow movement is based on a Native American tune Dvo?ák heard during his brief stay in America. A recent joint tour—a first for the Shahams—and considerable attention from the non-classical press may have helped put this CD up on the charts with David Helfgott and all those tenors, but the brother-and-sister act is no mere gimmick. This is a lovely, lively recording. (Deutsche Grammophon)

>Wynton Marsalis

HORN OF PLENTY

He totes an enormous, custom-built, eight-pound trumpet, blows jazz and classical music equally well (he's got eight Grammys to prove it), and just last month he received the first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded for a nonclassical composition—Blood on the Fields, his oratorio for 17 pieces and voices. To celebrate, Wynton Marsalis, 35, went out and played some basketball.

Blood (Columbia) is a three-hour opus that draws on work songs, blues, Duke Ellington and Béla Bartók. Its libretto, sung by Jon Hendricks, Miles Griffith and Cassandra Wilson, tells of two Africans—Leona and Jesse—who find love amid the hardships of American slavery. Marsalis, who is single and lives on Manhattan's Upper West Side, spoke about his "story driven in music" with reporter V.R. Peterson.

How difficult was Blood to write?

It was nerve-racking. I wanted to orchestrate for the larger ensemble and write for voices—something I'd never done. I wanted to make the music combine with the words yet make the characters seem real.

Do people more familiar with R&B, pop and rap shy away from work this complex?

I don't believe that something that is slightly sophisticated is too difficult for people. Civilization is an effort toward development. We constantly want to know what more is in the world to enjoy, whether it's food, clothing, automobiles or music.

Is winning a Pulitzer especially important to you?

Because it recognizes nonclassical music, that's important. All the same, when you play for kids who then present you with a drawing that says, "You are the greatest musician," or people drive from 200 miles away just to hear a concert, just the feeling, that spirit of swing, is also important.

What would Ellington think of Blood on the Fields?

He'd probably say what he did the first time he heard Thelonious Monk playing piano: "Man, he's stealing my stuff!"

  • Contributors:
  • David Thigpen,
  • Amy Linden,
  • Jeremy Helligar,
  • Craig Tomashoff,
  • Peter Ames Carlin,
  • Gerald Walker,
  • V.R. Peterson.