Love, Pain & Forgiveness
Syleena Johnson (Jive)

Judging by her bluesy, gospel-infused voice and her world-weary way with a lyric, Syleena Johnson is a very old 24. In fact, as the thematic title of her debut album suggests, the soulful singer seems to have experienced enough love, pain and forgiveness to fill an entire week's worth of Oprah episodes. The Chicago-area native probably owes some of her raw, traditional sound to her father, veteran bluesman Syl Johnson. But you can also hear shades of Chaka Khan, Randy Crawford and Tina Turner setting Johnson apart from all of today's overproduced, ultra-glossy Destiny's Child wannabes.

Opening strongly with the gritty ballad "I Am Your Woman" (by R. Kelly), Johnson also shines on the wrenching slow jams "Baby I'm So Confused" and "Hit On Me." But the highlight is her jazzy turn on "He's Gonna Do You In," featuring blues guitarist Buddy Guy.

Bottom Line: A voice that speaks volumes

R.E.M. (Warner Bros.)

Album of the week

R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck made news recently when he was arrested in an incident of alleged air rage on an international flight. Little of that anger shows up on the Athens, Ga., trio's marvelously mellow new album. A lush tour de force, Reveal transports the band into fresh territory, where guitars take a backseat to retro, Burt Bacharach-style string parts and candy-coated harmonies. Are these lollipop arrangements for real? On "Imitation of Life," singer and lyricist Michael Stipe seems to be reaching for something deeper when he sings, "That's sugarcane that tasted good/That's cinnamon/That's Hollywood." Rock stars who complain about showbiz artifice are nothing new, but Stipe does it with notable understatement and style.

This pretty yet disturbing album is the musical equivalent of the film American Beauty. Harking back to songs like Jimmy Webb's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," R.E.M. obsesses about pop culture's disposability while luxuriating in its irresistible glow. When the approach clicks, it's a neat trick. "All the Way to Reno (You're Gonna Be a Star)," with its bubbly, movie-music version of country-western swing, is a kitsch classic with character.

Bottom Line: Athens's finest fly again

Bee Gees (Universal)

At their peak, the Bee Gees were a chocolate-chocolate-chip sundae in a lake of hot fudge; their latest is a simpler dessert, like an apple. With one crucial difference: Millions of people will buy apples this year. Not that the new CD is bad, but the Bee Gees seem adrift. Too old to be Eminem, too white to be Baha Men, too talented to be Puff Daddy, they can't keep up with the trends of the last 10 seconds. Even the cover shows their picture hanging in a gallery, like an artifact. Careening from electronica to music-hall plucking, they succeed best in ballads like the elegant "Loose Talk Costs Lives." But musicians born when "Night Fever" was on the charts are aping '70s glam. Maybe it's time the Bee Gees reminded them how it's done.

Bottom Line: "Stayin' Alive" on life support

Brooks & Dunn (Arista Nashville)

Lest anyone fear that advancing age has taken some of the scoot out of Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn's boots, this album concludes with "See Jane Dance," a kicky uptempo tune reminiscent of Don Henley's "All She Wants to Do Is Dance." And "Good Girls Go to Heaven" ("Bad girls go everywhere") has a rascally, honky-tonk feel. The album does show evidence of a slide toward pop, though. Exhibit A: the Lionel Richieesque ballad "Unloved." They are exonerated with "Deny, Deny, Deny," which suggests a more elemental country sound and a classic Nashville theme: a man trying to counter his woman's accusations of misconduct.

Bottom Line: Lots of well-dunn kix

>the Go-Go's

In the early '80s Belinda Carlisle was a recovering punker turned front woman of the all-gal group-the Go-Go's, best known for their new-wave-meets-surf-sound hits "Our Lips Are Sealed" and "We Got the Beat"—and their party-hearty ways. Nowadays Carlisle, 42, threatens her 8-year-old son James with a time out for interrupting her interview.

Maturity enabled her band to set aside their squabbling and record God Bless the Go-Go's, their first studio album since 1984's Talk Show. "We call the last 15 years '75 years of drama,' " says Carlisle, who lives in France with husband Morgan Mason, 45, head of the Energy Channel, a European New Age cable network. "We've seen a lot and learned a lot."

That learning curve included drug problems for both Carlisle and guitarist Charlotte Caffey, 47, after the band (which included drummer Gina Schock, 43, bassist Kathy Valentine, 42, and guitarist Jane Wiedlin, 43) split up. "There were issues of jealousy and too many chemicals," says Carlisle. "Nobody can afford to do that these days. Some of us are wives and mothers. It isn't as appealing as it was back then."

After attempting solo careers the Go-Go's gathered for a few gigs in 1998 before officially reuniting last year. They are now on tour. So how did the group manage to work out 15 years of friction? Credit the Internet. "Thank God for e-mail," says Carlisle, "because you can communicate without having to hear or see the person, and everybody aired out all their crap via e-mail."

  • Contributors:
  • Chuck Arnold,
  • Alec Foege,
  • Kyle Smith,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Robyn Flans.