Will Smith Will Smith
Big Willie Style
(Columbia)


It's been years since the last D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince album, and the artist formerly known as Fresh Prince references that absence several times on this "rap return." The honest truth is, Will Smith on his own simply isn't as much fun to listen to as the D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince records were. Smith's raps are still smooth and palatable, but the humor is less present. Instead, there is lots of cheek about how great he is as a rapper and how high his lifestyle is. Typical rap stuff, that, but not the reason we ever listened to singles like "Parents Just Don't Understand" or "I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson."

That's not to say that Jeff Townes (Jazzy Jeff) isn't part of this disc — he's there in the background, with some co-writing and recording credits. But Smith has made a determined effort to move into a more "serious" smooth urban rap style with his solo debut, and in the process, lost some of the quirky musical originality that made him a star in the first place.

There is a particularly poignant song in "Just The Two Of Us," which has Smith rap about being a dad and the love he has for his son over the Grover Washington, Jr. hit of the same name. And the album closes with the inclusion of his hit soundtrack song "Men In Black," which stands as a good example of the type of mildly catchy, yet unoriginal rap that Smith has set himself up for with his new "solo" career.

 

Recoil
Unsound Methods
(Reprise)
½


In listening to Recoil's Unsound Methods, the latest album from ex-Depeche Mode member Alan Wilder, you have to wonder how much of Depeche Mode's dark, eerie sound Wilder was responsible for crafting. Because Unsound Methods is an unsettling mix of dancey drums, screeching haunted house backgrounds and deeply black vocals (provided by several male and female guest singers) that picks up where Depeche Mode leaves off and takes it all a step further.

This is far more adventurous stuff than any Depeche Mode album in recent memory - slashes of orchestral music, growling disenfranchised vocals from Douglas McCarthy and assorted other weirdness lead the disc off in "Incubus," which will likely please club D.J.s and dancers for late night lite-industrial mixes.

Probably the most effective tracks on the disc though are the two that poet/singer Maggie Estep collaborates on: "Luscious Apparatus" and "Control Freak." Estep tells perverse, twisted love affair stories over Wilder's dark synthesizer soundtracks. ("Carla started to think of Jack as a luscious apparatus in a meat suit," she says ominously in the opening of "Luscious Apparatus"). It's not the kind of album I'd go back to often for repeated listens, but it does pack an emotional wallop that begs intent listening when it is on the stereo.

 

Robert Miles
23am
(Arista)
½


Miles enjoyed huge success on both the New Age and dance charts last year with his hit debut album Dreamland and its singles, the instrumental "Children," and ethereal-yet-danceable "One and One" and "Fable." The album eventually sold 13 million copies worldwide, and was launched on the success of "Children," which Miles originally wrote to "calm kids down" at the end of a night of high intensity rave techno dancing.

Miles, an Italian club D.J., now returns with 23am, which continues in the vein of Dreamland, mixing ambient synthesizer swoops and fades with processed guitar loops, vocal coos and breathy words, a kitchen sink of backdrop sound effects and an undeniable penchant for hooky piano lead riffs. Much of the disc is instrumental, but like Dreamland, does feature silky smooth female vocals on key tracks. The first single, "Freedom," offers a mix of "planetarium" spacey keyboard opening and a rousing vocal from Sister Sledge's Kathy Sledge. It should easily propel this album up the charts as high as its predecessor. 23am is a crystalline clean disc of uplifting synthesizer anthems that's sharply electronic without being overpowering and relaxing without putting the listener to sleep. Recommended.

Snippets:


There's an excellent big rock song getting some play on the FM dial this month called "The Oaf" by the band Big Wreck. Released late last year, Big Wreck's In Loving Memory Of... on Atlantic Records proves the band has promise, but ultimately, the big blues-rock Zeppelin-esque guitar stomp of "The Oaf" is the hottest track on the CD. Buy the single, if you can find it...The soundtrack to the Jack Nicholson/Helen Hunt film As Good As It Gets is a half instrumental/orchestral, half vocal pop song affair. The pop half includes a sweetly gentle ballad from former "All In The Family" child star Danielle Brisebois in "Everything My Heart Desires," a song from Shawn Colvin, and the most interesting remake I've heard in a while: Art Garfunkel singing the Monty Python anthem "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." WIth a full orchestra and what sounds like a chorus of monks behind him, this is worth the price of the disc all by itself!