Still have to pick up just one more "stocking stuffer?" This week's column is dedicated to last minute Christmas gifts (and I'll see you at the mall):

FOR THE GENTLE HEARTED

Jewel Jewel
Spirit
(Atlantic)
½


Jewel's long-awaited second disc is a much slicker production than her debut, thanks to Madonna producer/co-writer (and ex-Chicagoan) Patrick Leonard. Jewel's folksy, easy strumming heart is still right out there for everyone to hear. Unlike her first album, which had to have most of its songs remixed in order to turn them into singles, Spirit holds some instantly catchy numbers from the current hit "Hands" to the Joni Mitchell-ish waifism of "Kiss The Flame" to the opening anthem "Deep Water," which oozes spiritual uplift: "when you're standing in deep water and you're bailing yourself out with a straw/and when you're drowning in deep water and you wake up making love to a wall/well it's these little times that help to remind /it's nothing without love." There's a character song about the trials of being overweight in "Fat Boy" which rings of the same sort of "unfair prejudice" sentiment as "Pieces of You," the title track from her first record. And there are a couple of strummers that don't ever really take off, but make for nice background music. This is not a phenomenal album, but it is a pleasant, earnest listen.

 

JudeJude
No One Is Really Beautiful
(Maverick/Reprise)


At first blush, Jude sounds a bit wimpy. His voice is androgynous, almost womanly (he does falsettos a LOT on this record) and he opens the album apologizing and singing about the strange relationship of man to mom. But very quickly, Jude's great pop sense and wry, understated sense of dark humor creeps out in these folky but catchy songs. In "Brad And Suzy" he sings of wanting the perfect Barbie and Ken relationship while skewering it at the same time. He hits an almost Roy Orbison sound in the chorus of "Charlie Says" which gives the album its title from its chorus a story of a woman who settles for "mediocre men of the hour." But the album's best work comes in "Rick James," a wah-wah guitar funky, razor sharp indictment of victimizers. "Don't be fooled/don't be flattered," he sings, "it's not like you ever mattered, not to me/Rick James was the original super freak."

With some electric guitars here and there (not to mention more piano and keyboard lines), Jude puts together a rockier brand of modern folk than Jewel, with some sharper social and personal commentary. This has rapidly moved to become one of my favorite discs of the year.

 

FOR KATE BUSH FANS

I Wanna Be Kate Various Artists
I Wanna Be Kate: Songs of Kate Bush
(Atlantic)
½


It's amazing this hasn't been done before. And on an international scale. But Chicagoans can take the credit for putting together a great little all-Windy City artists tribute album to England's Kate Bush, who long ago achieved cult status with many fans around the world (Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan owe much of their fame and some of their style to Kate). There aren't many famous names on here, but there are some pretty worthwhile revisions of Bush standards. The Aluminum Group adds a bit of rock to the brooding "L'Amour Looks Something Like You." Susan Voelz (of Poi Dog Pondering) adds her violin and layered breathy vocals to "The Sensual World," and The Moviegoers bring an almost Crash Test Dummies-low vocal in to turn "Hounds of Love" into a straight-up guitar hit. Thomas Negovan wonderfully captures the rare, sad beauty of "And Dream of Sheep," Syd Straw stays true to the folky late '70s feel of "The Man With The Child In His Eyes" and Nora Connor plays "The Saxophone Song" pretty true to Kate as well. In fact, if there's a song that comes close to improving on the original, it's Connor's work on this track. While Kate's own version tended to be a bit airy fairy in its vocal delivery, Connor's vocals are just a little more anchored and earthy. This disc also has versions of "Running Up That Hill," "Love and Anger," and the very difficult to handle rhythm and reel nightmare song "Jig of Life." There's also one horrible misstep: The J Davis Trio completely strip the melody and mystery of "There Goes A Tenner" and rap the lyrics over a slow beat. If the title wasn't on it, I'd never have known this was one of my favorite Kate Bush songs! If you have a Kate fan on your list, they'll thank you all year for finding this one.

(Can't find it at the record store? Call (773) 508-5221).

 

FOR DISNEY & COUNTRY FANS

Various Artists
The Prince of Egypt: Soundtrack

The Prince of Egypt: Nashville

The Prince of Egypt: Inspirational


(Dreamworks)


DreamWorks is apparently really banking on its movie and resulting soundtracks for The Prince of Egypt to clean up. Three different soundtracks? It's definitely overkill. The main soundtrack includes the current single a heavy-on-the-screechy warbling duet between Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. Carey fans can also find this on her latest hit singles collection, Ones. While the CD label says Eastern dance-pop singer Ofra Haza appears on three different tracks here, that label is a little deceiving. She only really sings once, on "Deliver Us," a song which really belongs to the powerful male chorus of backup singers. The other two songs merely use her as an "oh-ah" background singer to give the instrumentals an exotic feeling of the East. Steve Martin and Martin Short's duet is included, as is Michelle Pfeiffer's and Sally Dworsky's and there are also songs from Boyz II Men and a nice lullaby from Amy Grant, in addition to several orchestral pieces.

The other two discs are actually "Inspired By" collections. The Prince of Egypt Nashville is the stronger disc to come out of the trio (there's also a gospel disc called The Prince of Egypt: Inspirational) Rather than focusing on twangy country, the Nashville disc offers 17 easy listening tracks with definite new country/pop crossover appeal from some of the biggest names in country. Included are Randy Travis, Vince Gill, Alabama, Charlie Daniels and Mindy McCready. Faith Hill provides one of the showstoppers in "Somewhere Down the Road" as does Wynonna who belts an anthem about "Freedom" with a big-sounding gospel choir. Beth Nielsen Chapman provides a melancholy tender hymn with "Godspeed," and Reba slows it down for "Please Be the One." I have no idea how these songs tie into the movie other than in a repeated theme of "slavery, deliverance and faith" (also the title of Clint Black's offering) but it makes for an inspirational, relaxing listen.

 

FOR EXOTIC, WORLDBEAT FANS

Angelique Kidjo
Oremi
(Island)


Angelique Kidjo is a South African priestess. Her denomination: voodoo music magic. Oremi, like the four albums before it, fuses the floor-pounding beats of American dance halls with celebratory African chants and trills. But this is not some Deep Forest knock-off, no Westerner stealing the native chants of aborigines to make a buck. Kidjo is the real thing, a native of Benin, West Africa, discovered after her emigration to Paris, and she ably straddles the worlds of the west and the southeast with melodies steeped in the pop traditions of two divergent cultures. Oremi (which means friend) is a rich melange of beat and spice and power that transcends language. Refusing to pledge allegiance to any one country, musical boundary or tongue, Kidjo moves from English to her native Fon to jazz scatting all in a breath. The grammar may be unintelligible to all but a few U.S. bilinguals, but the feeling is clear. This is music for the hips, for the heart. This is a cross cultural love-in. Humanity's dance. Kidjo's rhythms throb with both the earthy power of the jungle and the electric techno steel and synths of the clubs.

 

FOR THE FAN OF THE BIZARRE & EXPERIMENTAL

Rasputina
How We Quit The Forest
(Columbia)


I'll preface this review by saying that this album is definitely not for everyone. But I've been listening to it fairly regularly for the past three months, and I have to say, it's one of my favorite discs of 1998. (After playing this disc for a friend, I mentioned I would be listening to it as I went to sleep that night and his mouth gaped in awe "Won't you get nightmares?" he asked.)

Rasputina is a three-woman group of cellists with a dark alternative rock side and a quirky sense of humor. This is not a nice gentle orchestral outfit on their last album, Marilyn Manson stepped in to remix one of their "creepier" tracks with abrasive guitars. Vocalist-songwriter Melora Creager sings with a weirdly pronounced tremelo that echoes the quaver of her cello. The effect is ethereal and moody, and the subjects that she writes about don't belay that song titles include the medieval sounding "The Olde Headboard" and "Leechwife" and there's a beautifully strange cover of '60s pop star Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me." There's also a song (spoken over the hymn "Christian Soldiers" about medieval exorcists and a 20-gallon brass syringe of holy water that belongs in a horror movie somehow ... If your giftee loves the warped and bizarre with a twist of humor, this would make a great gift.