Vince Gill (MCA Nashville)

"When you finally hit the top/ Man, you know what that means/ Everybody's ready for the next big thing/ For a little while you can do no wrong/ Well, live it up, son, 'cause it don't last long." So goes this disc's title tune, a playful, infectious ditty about the fickle nature of fame. Having won 15 Grammys and sold 22 million albums in his 23-year career, though, Gill has outlasted many a country upstart, and his quality 11th release shows just why. There is nothing flashy here, just meat-and-potatoes country. There's a touch of bluegrass and Cajun spice on "Old Time Fiddle," romantic balladry on "Two Hearts" and even a hint of rock on the title track. The CD's 17 well-conceived songs are splendidly executed by excellent musicians as well as a host of terrific guest singers including Emmylou Harris, Lee Ann Womack, Michael McDonald, Gill's 20-year-old daughter Jenny and his wife, Amy Grant. Still, it's clear throughout who's in charge.

BOTTOM LINE: A real Gill joy

Album of the week

Jody Watley (Shanachie)

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In the late '80s Jody Watley was a dance-pop diva on the order of Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul, but she spent most of the '90s looking for a new sound as her career faded. Watley's latest album—her first U.S. release in eight years—finds the singer wisely returning to the dance floor with a grooving, club-ready collection. Lush, jazz-tinged house tracks-with touches of electronica, two-step and even soul-disco—provide the perfect backdrop for Watley's sultry vocals. On "Photographs," which recalls Chic's 1979 hit "Good Times," Watley evokes disco-era Diana Ross. Later she rides the hypnotic tribal beats on the 8½-minute "Saturday Night Experience." Most surprising, though, is Watley's radical reworking of Peter Gabriel's 1986 gem "Don't Give Up," on which the midtempo techno throb sets a mesmerizing mood for the deeply moving lyric.

BOTTOM LINE: Watley gets her groove back

American Hi-Fi (Island)

Like the bratty spawn of Cheap Trick and Green Day, American Hi-Fi cranks out power punk-pop on its sophomore disc. The Boston quartet proves that you're never too old to be immature, even doing a bit of Kim Wilde's adolescent anthem "Kids in America" on the brash title track. Although Stacy Jones's whiny lead vocals can be grating, the band has no shortage of alt-rock raucousness, thanks to the crashing drums of Brian Nolan and the loud guitar crunch of Jamie Arentzen. Unfortunately, unabashedly juvenile cuts like "The Breakup Song" won't go over big beyond the Jackass crowd.

BOTTOM LINE: Hardly high art, but not a total loss

Ben Harper (Virgin)

On his ambitious fifth studio album, Harper proves to be a multifaceted diamond himself. Over the course of 14 songs, the singer-songwriter bounces between reggae, hard rock and country-folk. Backed by his longtime band the Innocent Criminals, he also dabbles in southern gospel, electric blues and '70s funk while adding such quirky touches as accordion alongside his trademark Weissenbom guitar. Harper is most successful incorporating African-inspired rhythms and vocal textures on two religious-themed tracks, the percussion-laced "Blessed to Be a Witness" and the a cappella "Picture of Jesus." The latter, a haunting hymn featuring the Ladysmith Black Mambazo 10-man choir on background vocals, would not have been out of place on Paul Simon's Graceland. Another spiritual song, "Amen Omen," returns Harper to his folk-rock roots with divine effect.

BOTTOM LINE: Sprawling but mostly sparkling

Spyro Gyra (Heads up)

When jazz fusion was a mad and edgy experiment in the labs of Miles Davis, Chick Corea and Weather Report, this Buffalo band studied well and created its own innovative blend of bright melodies, ethnic moods and catchy sax solos. But yesterday's risks are today's routines, and there isn't much Original about the group's 23rd release. This disc is a predictable mix of string-popping bass lines and easy beats that make Spyro's jazz so smooth, it often slides into an empty display of the band's skills. On "Bump It Up," a chaotic opening gives way to a slick sax riff before the group settles into a repetitive groove supporting standard solos. Perhaps the best idea here: inviting guest players who add texture to songs such as the Latin-tinged "Calle Ocho."

BOTTOM LINE: Been there, heard that

  • Contributors:
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Chuck Arnold,
  • V.R. Peterson.