Picks and Pans Review: 99.9 F°

updated 09/28/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/28/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Suzanne Vega

Vega, the ethereal pop heroine with strong folk roots, seems almost apologetic about speaking up. She opens her fourth album—her richest yet—quietly singing, "Excuse me/If I may/Turn your attention/My way." Turns out, in "Rock in This Pocket (Song of David)," she's a kind of David warning a Goliath: "And what's so small to you/Is so large to me/If it's the last thing I do/I'll make you see." Her voice—subdued, yet clear and affecting—zings like a slingshot.

Backed by all-star musicians (including Peter Gabriel's drummer Jerry Marotta and legendary folk-guitarist Richard Thompson) Vega creates atmospheric, enclosed worlds with each of her 12 songs. Having only recently met her natural father, she has written several songs that attest to the power of blood ("Blood Sings" and "Blood Makes Noise"). As on her other albums, Vega, an anti-child abuse activist, speaks out for children ("Bad Wisdom"). Of course the author of the Top 10 hit "Luka" mints several memorable, rhythmically fetching tunes and proves again to be an evocative lyricist. Capturing the mood of the album, the bubbling title cut describes a receptive borderline state: "99.9 Fahrenheit degrees/Stable now, with rising possibilities/It could be normal but it isn't quite/Could make you want to stay awake at night."

99.9 F° is the work of a master storyteller slyly raising the world's temperature with her controlled fire. (A&M)

ELMORE JAMES: KING OF THE SLIDE GUITAR

If you're wondering what Delta bluesman Robert Johnson might have sounded like with his guitar plugged into an amplifier, listen to guitarist Elmore James (1918-63). A disciple of Johnson's, James worked the juke joints of his home state, Mississippi, throughout the '40s before heading to Chicago, where he became one of the giants of electrified blues.

This two-CD compilation of James's recordings from the late '50s and early '60s is about as good as the blues gets, thanks to James's slashing slide guitar and his rasping, hugely emotive vocals. Known for his reluctance to record, James was "tricked" in 1951 into making his first cut, "Dust My Broom," a shuffling blues of Johnson's that would become James's signature. Two takes of that now classic hit are included in these 49 tracks (50 if you count a hilarious "conversation" between James and his session men about hunting for raccoons on tractors) along with such other James masterpieces as "The Sky Is Crying," "Shake Your Moneymaker" and "It Hurts Me Too."

Bobby Robinson, who produced the original sessions, deserves credit not only for their musical vitality but for his persistence in searching for the elusive James, who by 1959, after two heart attacks, had retired to Mississippi. Recorded over a three-year period up until James's death, these sides feature such fine musicians as rhythm guitarist Jimmy Spruill, drummer, harpist and vocalist Sam Myers, saxophonists J.T. Brown and Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams, pianist Johnny "Big Moose" Walker and James's cousin John A. "Homesick James" Williamson on bass.

Hugely influential, James has had his share of imitators. Part of the lure of his legend is that he himself started out copying Johnson's style, then went on to become a prodigious performer in his own right. Lucky for blues aficionados, the supreme fruits of that talent are all here. (Capricorn)

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