Jules Shear

When he conceived MTV's Unplugged series, his intention was to showcase subtleties of song-writing that were sometimes lost in the big beat and bombast of electric rock and roll. Now 39-year-old singer-songwriter Jules Shear attempts something of the same with this album of duets featuring a diverse roster of singers including Carole King, Paula Cole, Rosanne Cash, Cowboy Junkies singer Margo Timmins, rising folk stars Freedy Johnston and Ron Sexsmith and even former Cowsills vocalist Susan Cowsill. Inspired by "Writers in the Round," a series of performances with fellow singer-songwriters that he hosted at New York City's Bottom Line music club last year, Shear wrote these 15 songs as duets, most of which chronicle sinking or sunken relationships. With spare, lovely backing by Shear on guitar and accompaniment from mandolin and violin master David Mansfield, bassist Rob Wasserman and others, the album showcases his guests' emotion-charged vocals as well as Shear's own gift for honing knowing, love-worn lyrics. (High Street)

Wade Hayes

The world doesn't need a new Waylon Jennings quite yet, but when the time comes, Hayes will be a good candidate. A deep-voiced Oklahoman, he sounds equally at home in rascally, playful mode ("Are We Having Fun Yet") or lamenting a lost love ("Summer Was a Bummer").

He drew on a number of proven songsmiths for the material on this, his third album. Hayes, Nashville veteran Don Cook, his producer, and Chick Rains wrote "One More Night with You." Lonnie Wilson and Rains teamed with Hayes to write "Are We Having Fun Yet." Steve Diamond and Mark D. Sanders collaborated on "The Day She Left Tulsa (in a Chevy)." They're a lively bunch of songs, enjoyably rendered by one of the most entertaining newcomers in country music. (Columbia/DKC)

Various Artists

Covering the classics is risky: Remain too faithful to the original and you're accused of coasting. Stray too far and you're guilty of sacrilege. Often the safest place is on middle ground. Unfortunately, most of the contemporary artists on New York Undercover—a soundtrack for the FOX cop series—stick to the extremes. Xscape blunts its edge for a rote version of DeBarge's "All This Love," while Brownstone turns bland, reigning in its choirlike harmonies on the Emotions' hit, "Don't Ask My Neighbors." Only Teena Marie, tackling the Rose Royce recording "Wishing on a Star" with her patented operatic soulfulness, manages to transcend her source material. (MCA)

Daryle Singletary

Like Jerry Reed, who wrote one of the tunes on this ingratiating album, Singletary has a deep, warm voice and a loosey-goosey, playful, good-ol'-boy style. In a culture of pop musicians seemingly overwhelmed by their own cosmic importance, he is a welcome, though as yet largely unappreciated, presence.

This is the third album for Singletary, a 26-year-old native of Georgia, and it could well rescue him from relative obscurity. He has already survived the Nashville club circuit, where he worked his way up competing against people like Tracy Lawrence and Tim McGraw.

Singletary obviously has respect for his elders in the country music business, not only using Reed's lively "A Thing Called Love," but explicitly saluting George Jones in the title track. An album highlight: "I'd Live for You," a clever piece by Dewayne Blackwell, composer of "Friends in Low Places." In it, Singletary sings, "I wouldn't die for love, like the poets say they'd do," but adds, "I'd swim the deep blue swimming pool, I'd climb the highest barroom stool." Next time you hear Singletary's name, he just might be sitting pretty, not on a bar stool but at the top of a record chart. (Giant)

Black Grape

Days, maybe even weeks had passed since any members of Oasis had insulted the Queen or spit on fans. So you could almost hear the cheers from Fleet Street gossips after a January report that Shaun Ryder, lead lout of the British band Black Grape, had capped a day of pint-raising at an English pub by misplacing his 4-year-old daughter. Ryder reportedly hurried back to retrieve the girl, but perhaps proved once again that responsible parenting is no prerequisite for rock stardom. And on Stupid, Ryder and the boys justify their popularity by delivering a deliriously wacky montage of big, hip-hop beats and idiotic dance-party chants ("underpants/Foster Grants") that owes stylistic debts to the Mothers of Invention, the Beastie Boys and Chumbawamba. As for Stupid's, conceptual merits, the title says it all; it's a delightful insult to the sense of humor of sophomores everywhere. (Radioactive)

The Family Stand

This funky trio prefigured R&B's current hippie revival way back in the late 1980s, when today's flower-power followers were still singing along to old disco 45s in their bedrooms. But other than issuing their 1991 album Moon in Scorpio, the Family Stand had little to show for this decade—until now. Having replaced founding vocalist Sandra St. Victor with talented newcomer Jacci McGhee, multi-instrumentalists Peter Lord and V. Jeffrey Smith return with gurgling electric-guitar passages and braying horn sections to spare. Lord, who wrote or cowrote all the songs, steals the mike on "It Should've Been Me (That Loved You)," but it's McGhee's supple soprano that ultimately triumphs on soul stirrers like "When Heaven Calls." (EastWest)

>Loudon Wainwright III

MAN OF HIS AGE

Although some still best remember him for his 1972 novelty hit, "Dead Skunk," veteran folkie Loudon Wainwright, 51, has been creating new music for almost three decades. This week the divorced father of four releases his 16th album, Little Ship (Virgin), an often wry, sometimes darkly comic confessional about failed love, middle-age angst and the emotional complexities of parenting. He spoke to senior writer Peter Ames Carlin from his garage-top apartment in New York's Westchester County.

Do your kids or ex-mates ever complain about turning up in your songs?

Now that you mention it, I don't get asked out much more at Thanksgiving.

Does the music business seem tougher now that you're past 50?

It gets harder physically, schlepping a guitar from point A to point B. And it's hard to stand up in front of 300 people and hold them. But I've learned more tricks after all these years.

Like some other baby boomers, you don't seem to get old.

Well, we fooled ourselves into thinking it wouldn't happen. When I was a kid, you'd never see a 50-year-old guy walking around wearing a baseball cap. Now we're on Rollerblades and wearing our baseball caps backwards.

So you might call yours the boyish generation?

That's a nice spin. Childish is more like it, really.

  • Contributors:
  • Steve Dougherty,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Jeremy Helligar,
  • Alec Foege.