Mary J. Blige
The first few times we heard "Family Affair" on the radio, my wife didn't believe the single was really by Mary J. Blige. And who could blame her? Blige's vocals on this lead single from No More Drama (already the biggest pop hit of her career) are lighter and jazzier than we've come to expect from "just plain old Mary" (per "All That I Can Say," the gorgeous lead single from 1999's Mary) although every bit as strong and assured. And the carefree sentiment of the song isn't exactly what we're used to from R&B's reigning Queen of Pain. "Come on, everybody get on up/'Cause you know we got to get it crunk/Mary J. is in the spot tonight/And I'm gonna make you feel alright," Blige, now Queen of Bling, sings about a minute into this insistently funky Dr. Dre production, later tying the song into the album's title concept directly by explaining that she's "celebrating no more drama in our lives." On the title track, producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis construct a tornado of drama for Blige to fight her way out of, balancing a gospel-y choir against an interpolation on the theme from The Young and the Restless, as Blige promises, "No more drama in my life/No one's ever gonna make me hurt again."
The problem, of course, is that drama is exactly what we've always cherished about Blige, who brings more gravity to a song than any other contemporary R&B singer. It's Blige's ability to bring old-soul pain into a post-hip-hop R&B sensibility that has fed her best work: bearing down hard on Share My World's "Not Gon' Cry" or coming soft-but-serious on Mary's "Your Child," paying homage to Aretha and Dorothy Moore by closing her live record, The Tour, with "Day Dreaming" and "Misty Blue" or putting the soul-deep exclamation on Ghostface Killah's galvanizing childhood remembrance "All That I Need Is You."
No More Drama isn't exactly free of the heavy stuff, of course. On "Crazy Games" and the Neptunes-produced "Steal Away," Blige brings troubled-relationship clichés to life where lesser, younger divas wouldn't be able to break out of the conceptual. And the Blige-penned "PMS" (which wittily samples Al Green's "Simply Beautiful") is a bluesy slow-burner so unexpectedly direct that it's worthy of a chitlin' circuit label like Malaco.
But Blige's new positive attitude ultimately results in a more generic record, one that exudes less personality than anything else in her oeuvre. Sometimes we need drama. -- Chris Herrington
If, like me, you're the type whose life is driven by musical fanaticism, then get ready to add an item to the ever-changing "most important albums ever" list that is no doubt recited ad nauseum into every half-listening ear. Internal Wrangler has been an underground smash in Clinic's British homeland, and Radiohead have been liberally spreading the Clinic gospel after taking them on tour as an opening act. But however well-oiled and dubiously effective, the British hype machine is to be believed in this case, and whatever stardom, exposure, cash, or party favors are hoisted in Clinic's direction are well-deserved.
Like most wholly transcendent albums, I will forever remember what my life was like, or maybe even where I was, when I first heard Internal Wrangler. It will enter that exalted tier occupied by Television's Marquee Moon, Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation, My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, Mission of Burma's VS, Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, Wire's Pink Flag, and the Byrds' Fifth Dimension. (There's that aforementioned list; must stop NOW.) But unlike a few of the above, Internal Wrangler is not a genre definer, nor will it change the way you hear music. What it does do, with an almost creepy ease, is take a disparate palette of tasteful influences (the Seeds, Suicide, Can, the Buzzcocks, the Velvets, a touch of new wave, and a sprinkle of minimal, left-field disco) and pull off the ever-elusive, all-over-the-map pop album that includes a song for everyone.
"Distortions," track four and the album's first "pretty" song, is the perfect combo, flaunting three decades worth of great pop: Tommy James, Slider-era T. Rex, and New Order's "Leave Me Alone." The title track has the distinctive Talking Heads-by-way-of-the-Sweet bounciness that will become a trademark when the band is old enough to have one of those, and "The Second Line" dirties up Roxy Music while trying to emulate Can's "Moonshake." Then there are the two-minute-or-less "rockers" thrown about the album, adrenalizing '60s garage rock into raging punked-out capsules meant to keep you on your toes (not that you will need it). Clinic is further proof that rock is not, nor has it ever been, dead, as is perpetually declared. For better or worse, Internal Wrangler is one of those records that I'll have to put away for a year because I wore it out in a month. -- Andrew Earles
I have never been one to claim that Radiohead is groundbreaking or unique: They are merely a good pop band greatly influenced by more challenging yet lesser-known artists, and they are simply fashioning these influences into something acceptable and understandable on a very large, if not mainstream, scale. Mercury Rev is one of these "lesser-knowns," but the grand scope of their latest effort may result in a deserved change in that status.
All Is Dream places Mercury Rev five albums into a career that started with 1991's Yerself Is Steam, an album that was peddled from the trunk of a car after the collapse of their label, Rough Trade USA. Obviously cursed from day one, Mercury Rev would go on to be kicked off of Lollopalooza '93's second stage (for being so loud that the main stage was drowned out) and experience label and lineup turmoil that would crush most outfits. All Is Dream is the new, mature Mercury Rev coming to complete fruition, a trend that was started about halfway through 1995's See You On The Other Side. No longer do they sound like the 1910 Fruitgum Co. competing with both a boozed-up marching band and a gymnasium full of idling school buses. Now it's a more measured approach to surpassing what the Flaming Lips (who once shared members with Mercury Rev) did with The Soft Bulletin or Spiritualized did with Ladies and Gentlemen , but Mercury Rev eschew the Lips' gimmicks and Spiritualized's junior-high study-hall drug imagery for soaring psychedelic-pop anthems devoid of pretension. Plus, they write far better hooks than those two bands or, for that matter, any band affiliated with Elephant 6 -- a much-doted-on indie contingent that has helped overshadow the past half-decade's real pop craftsmen. I don't normally find myself recommending fifth albums as places to start with bands, but All Is Dream is the perfect introduction to one of the era's more pathetically overlooked musical treasures. -- AE