R.E.M.

Here is a "studio" album that resonates with the shotgun spirit of a restless band on the run: The groundwork for four tracks was laid down in concert during the foursome's 1995 world tour. Several were recorded during sound checks. One instrumental ("Zither") was cranked out in a Philadelphia dressing room. And the complete package was put together in a Seattle recording studio.

Hi-Fi revisits the rowdy punk ethic of the band's last album, 1994's Monster. But while that disc's roughed-up sound was given an ultrasmooth finish, the band presents most of these 14 tunes in all their ragged glory. "Leave" and "Departure" both erupt with the manic energy you'd expect of a band that has been cooped up in too many hotel rooms, while the brooding "E-Bow the Letter," which features a zombie-like vocal cameo from Patti Smith, seems to have been written on the spot. Thanks in part to the meandering quality of singer-songwriter Michael Stipe's delivery and his now-legendary elliptical lyricism, it starts to make sense only after multiple listens.

R.E.M. even applies its anything-goes philosophy to song sequence. The creepy, crawling pace of the album's opening cut, "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us," hardly hints at the explosive "Wake-Up Bomb" that comes next, while the aforementioned "E-Bow" is sandwiched between a frenzy of guitar feedback and a chain-saw rocker. That may make New Adventures in Hi-Fi an occasionally jarring adventure, but by letting their temperaments run wild, the guys capture the unfettered spontaneity that sometimes makes their gigs the ultimate live experience. (Warner Bros.)

John Mellencamp

years ago wind his music down.

Instead, he boldly emphasizes the groove by bringing in as coproducer New York City dance-club deejay Junior Vasquez, who previously worked with Madonna and Elton John. The liner notes credit him as the source of the album's "loops, grooves, percussion and other monkey business."

Vasquez helps Mellencamp rejuvenate his familiar, meat-and-potatoes brand of rock. Keeping routine guitar riffing to a minimum, the collaborators accent "Life Is Hard" with a dash of hip hop and anchor "Emotional Love" and "Circling Around the Moon" with rumbling basslines and layered percussion. The rest of the band balances the menu with strong melodies and stately horn and violin flourishes.

But Mellencamp doesn't always sound up to the vocal demands of his hyperkinetic muse. His grizzled, down-in-the-mix performance on "This May Not Be the End of the World" is at odds with the track's exuberant marching pace. And the Hoosier sounds a bit sluggish on the first single, "Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)." It is as if Mr. Happy Go Lucky himself can barely muster the energy to even crack a smile. (Mercury)

Fiona Apple

The title of this compelling first album from a young New York City singer-songwriter (who happens to be celebrating her 19th birthday on Friday, Sept. 13) is appropriate, considering the wave of superior female talent that has recently swept through pop. The astonishing depth and elegance of this disc suggests that she may ride the crest of that swell for some time.

A sort of hybrid of Alanis Morissette and Nina Simone—part rebellious rocker and part sultry jazz singer—Apple comes on tough in songs like "Sleep to Dream," a slow, smoldering tune in which she kisses off a reluctant lover ("You say love is a hell you cannot bear/And I say gimme mine back and then go there, for all I care").

Then she turns tender in the sexy, slinking "Shadowboxer." No matter her mood, Apple writes literate, to-the-point lyrics and melodies at once jazz-inspired and Top 40-ready. Tidal, like its creator, is an album that deserves to make a big splash. (WORK/Clean Slate)

Diana Krall

There are plenty of jazz singers who know their way around a piano. And there are some jazz pianists who can sing creditably. Through the years, however, there have been only a few (Fats Waller, Nat King Cole, Shirley Horn) who have been brilliant at both. Now add Krall to that list. Her warm, textured alto is faintly reminiscent of Horn's.

A 30-year-old native of British Columbia, Krall makes up in range of feeling and emotional acuity what she lacks in sheer size of sound.

She moves effortlessly from brassy and bombastic ("I'm An Errand Girl for Rhythm," "Hit That Jive Jack" and the slyly suggestive "Frim Fram Sauce") to bluesy ("Baby Baby All the Time") to been there ("Boulevard of Broken Dreams"). She can be bittersweet ("You Call It Madness") or brokenhearted ("You're Looking at Me").

As for Krall's playing, she swings with ease: She is spare when necessary, and she supplies a fluid, sympathetic setting for her own, immensely appealing vocals. (Impulse!)

>Bobby Brown

MR. MISUNDERSTOOD

Lately, R & B singer Bobby Brown has been making more news on the police blotter than on the pop charts. He was arrested for drunken driving in April (an Oct. 25 court date in Georgia is scheduled), and on Aug. 17 he crashed a Porsche belonging to his wife, Whitney Houston, into a Hollywood, Fla., street sign (the cause of the accident is being investigated). Now Brown, 27, hopes to rebound by reuniting with his former group New Edition for a new album, Home Again (MCA), and a tour.

Why does trouble seem to follow you?

So many stories are made up, I tend to start believing them. It's like, "Damn, when did I do that?" I wonder to my wife, "Honey, where was I that day? Maybe I snuck away from you for a few hours?"

But it's okay. God knows me, my wife knows me, my kids know me, so whatever anyone says about me goes in one ear and out the other.

What are the misconceptions about you?

That I'm a womanizer. That I cheat on my wife. And that I'm a troublemaker. I don't start trouble, but if a man disrespects me, then he better be prepared to defend himself. My father taught me that if I was ever disrespected by another man, then that man has to apologize to me as a man or I'll have to make him apologize.

Are you and Whitney separated?

Just like any other couple, we have our disputes, but there's never been a separation or anything like that. We fight about little things, like, "Why'd you come in at 3 o'clock last night?" Like that. I tell her the truth. The truth shall set you free.

Any regrets?

I would have liked to meet my wife a lot earlier.

  • Contributors:
  • Jeremy Helligar,
  • Craig Tomashoff,
  • Joanne Kaufman,
  • Peter Castro.