NEW YORK — RICK ASTLEY, the much-maligned young British singer with the amazing voice, has finally broken away from the stifling over-production that marred his first two albums. On this appropriately titled and self-produced release, ("Free," BMG Records) he gets to stretch his muscles, both as a singer and a songwriter. His deep, rich baritone shines on songs and arrangements that are significantly more soulful than his earlier efforts. Although his lyric writing is a little weak in spots ("You're the one that pulls me through ... you light up my night and day," etc.), most of his songwriting (he has co-written most of the material with other writers) is strong and varied. A couple of highlights are the ballad "Behind The Smile," and the mellow groove "Move Right Out." He turns in a nice version of Michael McDonald's "In the Name of Love." A talent like Astley's deserved another chance. This is it, and he's done himself proud.
Sheila E., "Sex Cymbal," Warner Bros.
Sheila E. is one of rock's strongest and most imaginative drummers, as she has proved on her own and with Prince's band. She's also a fine singer and songwriter, and she puts all three of these talents to work on her first solo album in almost four years. "Sex Cymbal" is a curious mixture of wonderfully inventive and clever arrangements mixed with run-of-the-mill dance tracks.
There are hints here and there that Sheila E. has a lot more to say than what she's saying on this album - hot Latin-jazz brass lines, angular boppish vocals (on "Heaven"), lush vocal harmonies, and punchy percussive effects pop up in just the right places. But they're just hints, and more often than not, she settles into monotonous dance grooves, singing in a breathy chirp that doesn't do her justice. It's a pity, too, that she doesn't take more advantage of her Latin roots (her father is Bay Area perc ussionist Pete Escovedo). There is the salsa-flavored "Droppin' Like Flies," and an Afro-Cuban percussion jam, but it lasts only about 45 seconds. Prince's influence runs through almost every track.
R.E.M., "Out of Time," Warner Bros.
Pop music's endearingly quirky band proves yet again that they're not afraid to be different. This time R.E.M. has gone more abstract, expanding their nuts-and-bolts rock instrumentation to include strings, mandolin, harpsichord, baritone sax, organ, and flugelhorn. Like many talented and developing rock bands, R.E.M. changes because their work deepens, not because they've decided to take a different tack.
Here they've retained the multilayered vocals and clanging guitars that are their trademark, and lead singer Michael Stipe's voice is as strong and appealing or strident and overbearing as ever, depending on your point of view. "Out of Time" has its dark side ("Low" and "Losing My Religion"), but the gloom is balanced by the merry (and possibly sarcastic) ditty, "Shiny Happy People" and the humorous "Radio Song," which includes a rap by KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions.
This is an album of love songs, another switch for R.E.M., whose previous releases, "Document" and "Green" were more outward- than inward-looking. In fact, they came within a hair's breadth of naming the album "Love Songs." It's good to see R.E.M. stretching out, without losing one iota of their totally identifiable sound.
Ivan Lins, "Awa Yio," Reprise
The talented Brazilian songwriter has done a complete about face since his last album, "Love Dance," a weak attempt to capture a US audience. This new disc is Brazilian to the core - Lins sings only in Portuguese, and covers a broad range of subjects indigenous to Brazilian culture, many of which may be unfamiliar to listeners outside Brazil: African-based religions, Carnival, superstitions, etc. He uses a number of Brazilian musical styles, fused with a pop/rock sensibility. Lins's strength lies in his composing, rather than his singing. On this disc, Lins's soaring, sophisticated melodies are somewhat overshadowed by a cluttered musical background, but it doesn't destroy the power and beauty of his music. The liner notes have wisely included the Portuguese lyrics, translations into English, and explanations of some of the more obscure points of Brazilian culture.
Emily Remler, "Retrospective, Volume One, Standards," Concord Jazz
Remler was an exceptionally promising jazz guitarist who died last year at the age of 32, after having recorded a half dozen albums for Concord. None of these effectively captured her electrifying live performances, but this collection is a decent sampling of her interpretations of standard songs and jazz tunes, ranging from Clifford Brown's "Daahoud" to Antonio Carlos Jobim's "How Insensitive." Remler was outstanding not only as an improviser - always original, often a risk-taker - but also as an inter preter of melody and harmony as well, as can be heard especially on her version of "Softly As in a Morning Sunrise," with its mysterious ascending and descending bass line running under the melody. Concord plans a subsequent release of Remler originals.