Vince Gill

You never have to dig too far to get to the bluegrass in old Vince's roots. But the croony singing and loosey-goosey picking he learned apprenticing with the Bluegrass Alliance and Emmylou Harris are especially evident in this lively, melodious album. The best—and bluegrassiest—track is the more elaborate of two versions of the title tune, a resonantly wistful, semi-folky ditty written by Gill (blue-grass princess Alison Krauss and her band, Union Station, back up Gill's vocal). If that's the highlight, it's far from the album's only asset. There is also the zydeco-flavored "Down to New Orleans," with Bekka Bramlett, Delaney and Bonnie's daughter, adding tangy harmony. And Gill—cowriting with masterful old Texas tunesmith Guy Clark—delivers the affecting "Jenny Dreamed of Trains," marred only by the risible attempt to rhyme "trains" and "things." Patty Loveless and Shelby Lynne also contribute enlivening backup vocals, while veterans Bob DiPiero and Don Schlitz assist Gill with songwriting chores. Long on talent if a trifle short on attitude, Gill has positioned himself as one of Nashville's most consistent performers, turning out one solid album after another. This enjoyable package is no exception. (MCA)

Monifah

Monifah may be just the latest R&B ingenue to drop her surname and score a hit, but this preternaturally sophisticated 23-year-old could emerge as leader of the pack. Although her debut album essentially equals the sum of her musical peers' best parts—Brandy's bubbly enthusiasm plus Monica's no-nonsense strut plus Faith's sanctified blues—it's a platinum formula nonetheless.

Monifah hits the emotional bull's-eye on "It's Alright," singing with Zen-like cool rather than with the vocal gymnastics that performers often mistake for soul. And her superb production team, which includes rapper Heavy D, fuels her quiet fire: The bass-driven, slow-burn funk of the hit singles "I Miss You (Come Back Home)" and "You" stand out amid R&B's cookie-cutter rhythms. Such understated excellence suggests we'll remain on a first-name basis with Monifah for a long time to come. (Universal/Uptown)

Elvis Presley

Nearly 19 years after his death, what is left to say about the King? 11 Plenty, baby. And this latest reissue—of tunes originally recorded in 1956, when "the devil's music" (aka rock and roll) was making teens twirl and parents hurl—will hardly be the last word. Elvis 56 finds Presley tearin' down the house on raucous classics like "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Hound Dog." The 22 tracks represent Elvis's first sides for RCA—including previously unreleased and alternate takes—and catch him at a prime time: not long after his debut for Sam Phillips's Sun Records and just as Hollywood was calling. Hits aside, there are also seldom heard curios here like the slinky bump-and-grinder "So Glad You're Mine" and the boogie-woogie-laden "One-Sided Love Affair."

Backed on many of the tunes by the extraordinarily smooth harmonies of the Jordanaires, the Presley of '56 was at his creative apex. With a slicker, more commercial sound already creeping in, he would never again sound this pure and unaffected. Otherworldly Presley sightings be damned! Elvis 56 gives us a living, palpitating, flesh-and-blood King splendidly holding court. (RCA)

Betty

Girl groups have been charming audiences at least since the Andrews Sisters laid eyes on their "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (from Company B)." But over the years it has become difficult to tell some of the groups apart, especially those singing pop and R&B. Then along comes Betty. Unlike such Svengali-driven ensembles as the Supremes and En Vogue, the members of this New York City trio write most of their own unabashedly poppy material, and then—what a concept!—play it themselves on real instruments. And while SWV and TLC basically amount to a lead singer and a pair of backup vocalists, Betty performs songs like "Baby Ooo" and "Houdini" entirely in three-part harmony. Even when they occasionally undermine their hooky tunes by singing in a flat, monochromatic tone, you have to give them credit them for delivering hilariously callow lines like "I fell in love to my left/ I fell in lust to my right/ I fell head over heels alright/ When you asked me to dim the light" with a straight face. (Inter sound)

>Pete Townshend

A ROCK WARRIOR'S PEACE

These days, Pete Townshend is living according to one of his song titles: "A Little Is Enough." No longer the prolific songwriting guitarist for The Who (which officially disbanded in 1983), Townshend, 51, can afford to pick his spots. "I don't choose to work too hard," he says. But on June 29 in London's Hyde Park, he and former band-mates Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle will give a charity performance of The Who's 1973 masterpiece, Quadrophenia. His new CD, The Best of Pete Townshend (Atlantic), is a compendium of his solo hits.

You used to drink heavily. Looking back, did it ever do any good?

Oh, yeah, I think booze is wonderful. When it works, it's fantastic. Unfortunately, it's so damaging. The problem is that the window of creativity becomes smaller and smaller. You sit down, have a drink, smoke a cigarette, have another drink and the blank page is still blank. I used to write 10 sheets of lyrics and end up with a song title. For me, booze got in the way in the end. But I don't know that I could have written a song as poignant about getting old in a marriage as "Slit Skirts" if I hadn't been a wee bit drunk when I wrote it. I had to be on the wrong side of the bar, in a set-me-up-another-one mood, talking to Stan the bartender, in order to get that out.

Has your hearing loss taught you anything valuable?

It's amazing that in the debate about whether or not Pete should tour with The Who that the question of hearing is never thought about, and yet it's the first thing that comes to my mind. It makes me angry. When I'm in the back of my car, I can't hear a word my wife and 6-year-old son are saying in the front. On airplanes I can only hear children or people with high squeaky voices if they're looking right at me. I lip-read. I don't have hearing aids in my ears, but it wouldn't hurt for me to wear one, and I eventually will when I can no longer get through the day. What I've learned from some of the things that have happened to me is that in a way they're tests of my ability to accept my own frailties.

  • Contributors:
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Jeremy Helligar,
  • Randy Vest,
  • Peter Castro.