Copyright 1996 Knoxville News-Sentinel Co.
Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, TN)

December 29, 1996, Sunday

SECTION: Showtime; Pg. T3

LENGTH: 846 words

HEADLINE: Albums by Mann, Mellencamp, Crow make grade of great stuff

BYLINE: Chuck Campbell


As bleak as 1996 was, some great stuff managed to find its way into music stores. Fittingly, most of it was ignored, overlooked or underappreciated.

1. "I'm With Stupid," Aimee Mann (DGC)

Legal hassles delayed this release, and it was hardly noticed once it got out, which is tragic because Mann's record is the purest kind of pop. Her melodies are the best in the business, complemented by a sympathetic voice that resonates with a compassionate mix of sadness, irony, resolve and self-deprecating humor. Stripped-down arrangements throw full attention to the powerful songwriting and delivery, and no one is better at putting together a song about the complexities of love gone awry. Mann's survivalist instinct has pulled her along at the brink of obscurity, and the struggle is just making her stronger. Oddly enough, there's an uncharacteristically optimistic and defiant little ditty tucked in the middle of "I'm With Stupid" that may well foreshadow her career: On the bouncy "Superball," she proclaims, "If I pick up speed get out of my way/I'm a sonic boom."

2. "Limbo," Throwing Muses (Ryko)

By delivering the best Throwing Muses album since 1991's "The Real Ramona," Kristin Hersh escapes the biting limbo that has besieged her band since the departure from the group of her stepsister Tanya Donelly (who went on to found Belly). Vulnerable, angry, nervous and droll, Hersh is an enchanting raspy centerpiece in this collection of country-tinged modern rock, spinning out paradoxical yarns with buzzing hooks that won't be ignored.

3. "Sheryl Crow," Sheryl Crow (A&M)

Sheryl Crow supports 1996's best single -- her sardonic "If It Makes You Happy" -- with gritty philosophy on this genre-hopping adventure that crosses pop, country, rock and jazz. She explores the meaning of life, seeks redemption and even has an existential experience on "Everyday Is a Winding Road" ("I've been living on coffee and nicotine/I've been wondering if all the things I've seen were even real"). Clearly she wants to do more than have some fun.

4. "Walking Wounded," Everything But the Girl (Atlantic)

Following the unexpected chart triumph of their remixed single "Missing," Everything But the Girl glides into a new realm with "Walking Wounded" as Ben Watt builds a foundation of moody space music (often stretched over deceptively fast beats). Tracy Thorn graces these songs with her usual soulful dignity, singing languidly about the burden of her erratic heart. Gorgeous and painful.

5. "Spiritchaser," Dead Can Dance (4AD)

Absorbing numerous forms of world music and turning them into a sensual sound all its own, Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry create a metaphysical hash with fascinating instruments from around the globe (most of which they play themselves). The two also sing -- he with rich virility, she with a spiritual tremolo -- and they harmonize with mystical eroticism.

6. "Tiny Music . . . Songs From the Vatican Gift Shop," Stone Temple Pilots (Atlantic)

As modern rock bogs down in stagnation, Stone Temple Pilots has the courage to diversify. Songwriter/guitarist brothers Robert and Dean DeLeo find "new stimulation" with such diversions as taunting go-go (the single "Big Bang Baby") and jazz ("And So I Know"), and lyricist/singer Scott Weiland refuses to succumb to the relentless whining that has consumed his contemporaries.

7. "Hot Saki & Bedtime Stories," Catherine (TVT)

Catherine is a blast of instantly gratifying rock from the heartland. Robust guitars, luminescent melodies and galvanizing rhythms drive this boldly good-natured work of infectious music. The clincher is singer/vocalist Mark Rew's exchange with guest vocalist D'Arcy Brown (of Smashing Pumpkins) on "Four Leaf Clover," which turns "I made up my mind" into an unshakable mantra.

8. "Mr. Happy Go Lucky," John Mellencamp (Mercury)

Mellencamp keeps his integrity as a rock Everyman but beefs up his grooves with production by dance-club mixer Junior Vasquez. The invigorating foundation seems to motivate Mellencamp, who is more inspired here than in recent albums with his charismatic vignettes and endearing love songs -- not the least of which is the affecting bittersweet ballad, "Jackamo Road."

9. "Peace Beyond Passion," Me'Shell Ndegeocello (Maverick/Reprise)

Unable to reconcile conflicting messages of conventional religion, Me'Shell Ndegeocello resolves to dedicate herself to a god she accepts on her own terms with this provocative album of cool jazz and sleek R&B. Apart from her cravings for understanding of the world, she also explores her own lust, adding a funky layer to this textured album.

10. "In Flight," Linda Perry (Interscope)

Reflecting Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon," Linda Perry, former lead singer of 4 Non Blondes, makes a promising solo debut with this acoustic folk/electric blues hybrid. Her powerful pipes charge the pondering or despairing tracks with a stately grandiosity. Perry's world-weary voice is not one to forget. (Don't miss her bewitching alcoholic's nightmare, "Fill Me Up.")

GRAPHIC: Sheryl Crow appears to have some fun on her self-titled disc, a musical adventure that crosses pop, country, rock and jazz.

Though her album received little attention, the melodies and lyrics on "I'm with Stupid" put Aimee Mann in a class by herself.