John Parish and Polly Jean Harvey

You can hear her noisy influence whenever Alanis Morissette or Courtney Love sings, but it's hard to describe what Harvey—the auteur of her U.K. band, PJ Harvey—sounds like. Her voice keeps mutating, even in a single song. "Taut"—from this new album recorded with her longtime bandmate John Parish (who, with one exception, wrote all the music to her lyrics here)—starts with Harvey pleading, "Jesus, save me." She does so, in a voice that sounds like the little girl talking through the TV set in Poltergeist. Next, Harvey does a perfect vocal impression of fingernails scraping a blackboard. Then she shifts to a mad, strangulated whisper and narrates a little horror story about a road trip with a madman. Elsewhere, Harvey croons love lyrics as sweet as early Joni Mitchell—her "Rope Bridge Crossing" offers a truer metaphor for love than any span in Madison County. Harvey also belts out a macho falsetto on "That Was My Veil" that makes Robert Plant sound like a mewing kitty. Most startling is her cover of "Is That All There Is?" Peggy Lee sang it like a wised-up romantic whose hopes still smolder like a stubbed-out cigarette. Harvey sings it brilliantly, like an alien from icy outer space. Dance Hall can't match Harvey's 1995 masterpiece To Bring You My Love, but it confirms her as the one true goddess of alt rock. (Island)

Bernadette Peters

Veteran Broadway star Peters seems, in some respects, the female equivalent of Mandy Patinkin (who joined forces with her for a few duets on an album some years ago and with whom she starred, to great effect, in Sunday in the Park with George). Neither performer can be accused of understatement in their vocal presentations. Would that as much effort went into Peters's diction, which is sometimes mushy, or her often clumsy phrasing. The overriding impression given by this CD, a collection of blues, pop, rock and theater songs, is of a rather unformed, mannerism-laden performer trying to find her voice. "I Make Him Feel Good," while attempting to be hot and funky, succeeds only in being arch and annoying. "Running on Faith," which starts beautifully, becomes an overproduced, overamplified mess. Where Peters shines is in a simple, direct and haunting take (accompanied by a single guitar) of "What's the Use of Wond'rin?" from Carousel. Let's have more such songs from Peters. (Angel)

Stan Freberg and Various Artists

When the first volume of this laugh-out-loud, satirical musical history was released in 1961, it was deemed a high-water mark in pop culture, blending bright comedy with a shrewd, if jaundiced, revision of American history. But most of all, it was funny—as in the sketch "Declaration of Independence," in which Ben Franklin hesitates to sign the document because he doesn't know what "purfuit of happineff" means. Or "The Thanksgiving Story (Under the Double Turkey)," which explains how roasted bald eagle could have become the main course at Thanksgiving.

The Weird Al of his day, Freberg originally wrote many of these songs and sketches for a Broadway musical. Instead he released his spoof as a record album. Half a lifetime later, Freberg has at last responded to the importunings of his cult following and turned out the sequel. Packaged here with the original, Volume 2 is equally hilarious, with a song about an early ad agency, "Madison, Jefferson, Franklin and Osbourne," and another in which Civil War martyr Barbara Frietchie says she would prefer that rebels not shoot at her "old, gray head."

The major Volume 1 cast members—Freberg himself, Peter Leeds and Jesse White (best known as the underemployed repairman in Maytag's TV commercials)—have returned for Volume 2. Freberg also adds his son Donavan (the wiseacre kid in Encyclopaedia Britannica's commercials, for which Stan does the voice-overs), TV veteran Lorenzo Music, the voice of Garfield the cartoon cat, Roseanne's John Goodman and Harry (This Is Spinal Tap) Shearer. Billy May again arranged and conducted the musical numbers, all of which Freberg wrote.

While Freberg says he flunked high school history, these albums, in their own insidiously subtle way, actually teach a little of that subject. But the best thing about them is that Freberg gets no further than 1918. That leaves him the better part of a riotous century still to play with. (Rhino)

Jackie McLean

Alto saxophonist McLean is one of today's few active jazzmen whose musical personalities were formed during bebop's heroic early years. A teenage prodigy from Harlem's Sugar Hill, he tagged along in the late '40s behind the great modern-jazz trailblazer Charlie Parker. At 64, McLean is as fiery a player as ever. His solos burn with the kind of commitment that can turn a roomful of blasé onlookers into cheering partisans. Leading a quartet whose members are about half his age (pianist Junko Onishi, bassist Nat Reeves and the superb Lewis Nash, a drummer who knits rhythms with a surgeon's precision), the saxman offers no gimmicks, just first-class jazz. In McLean's hands, the alto isn't the sleek, silver-toned instrument Johnny Hodges made it, but urgent and caustic. Fond of punctuating phrases with a throaty rasp, McLean has a frank earthiness most of today's young players are too inhibited to attempt. Almost any other saxophonist would treat the standard "A Cottage for Sale" as elegiac and forlorn; McLean swaggers through it. In the silence that follows the leader's hypnotic coda to the Miles Davis tune "Solar," drummer Nash can be heard to murmur an admiring "Yeah, Jackie." Amen. (Blue Note)



THESE SHOULD HAVE BEEN HEADY DAYS for the members of the Long Beach, Calif., ska-punk band Sublime: drummer Floyd "Bud" Gaugh, 28, bassist Eric Wilson, 27, and especially singer Brad Nowell, whose edgy vocals have helped make their single "What I Got" an alternative-radio hit. But the promising musician was found dead, at 28, of a heroin overdose in a San Francisco hotel room May 25, a few months after completing Sublime (Gasoline Alley/MCA), his group's highly anticipated third album, and just a week after his wedding to San Diego-born college student Troy denDekker, 26. "I really feel cheated," says denDekker, who gave birth to the couple's son Jakob, now 15 months, in 1995. "He had finally fulfilled his dreams. He had Jake. Then heroin took it all away. It was like another woman. She was killing us. I now have a lot of anger toward heroin. I hate heroin."

Devastated, too, were his bandmates, who had formed the group with him in 1988, only to disband after his death. "I get frustrated when I hear our song on the radio," Gaugh says. "We could be touring and playing for all these kids." Instead he and Wilson despair as Sublime, released in July, climbs the pop charts. Now, says Gaugh, himself a recovering addict, "I surround myself with people who don't use heroin. Brad's death really woke me up. Seeing him there at his funeral was enough for me."

  • Contributors:
  • Tim Appelo,
  • Joanne Kaufman,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Tony Scherman,
  • Paula Yoo.