Bjork - Telegram (Elektra): This quirky singer's last CD, "Post," was one of the more acclaimed releases of 1995. This unusual follow-up takes the songs from that album and presents them in a drastically altered form (a couple of new songs are thrown in, however). Some of the current music scene's hottest remixers have a go at the material, and the results are decidedly mixed. Almost unrecognizable from their earlier versions, the songs are presented in a variety of forms, including jungle, techno, and rap. Among the highlights are percussionist Evelyn Glennie's playing of exhaust pipes on "My Spine" and the Brodsky Quartet's chamber music version of "Hyperballad."
- Frank Scheck
Phish - Billy Breathes (Elektra/Warner Bros.): This is a fun record to listen to. Phish is a band known for its improvisational style - witnessed superbly in its live 1995 set "A Live One." But the songs on this seventh disc (tightly co-produced by legendary Steve Lillywhite), preserve that feeling while serving up meaty tunes. The hit single "Free" - with electric guitar feedback weaving around strong piano - sets a mellow tone for the rest of the album. Witty dissonant piano punctuates the best track, "Theme From the Bottom." The four guys sing well together, making the songs warm and familiar. Tip to tail, this one's a keeper.
- Liz Brown
Marian Anderson - Prima Voce (Nimbus): This month marks the centennial of Anderson's birth, and this compilation of recordings from her prime (1936-1946) is a supremely fitting contribution to that occasion. While other discs collecting recordings by the great African-American contralto are available, this is absolutely the most representative (the 18 selections divide between thoughtfully programmed classical songs and black spirituals). A dolorous Bach Cantata No. 81, "Jesus Sleeps," seamlessly leads to a rousingly defiant "Go Down Moses." This is the only Anderson CD offering these vintage recordings with spacious clarity and depth. The tonal range and emotional energy of her singing have finally been aptly presented in a sensitive program.
- Norman Weinstein
Mandela (Island): The soundtrack to an upcoming documentary (Feb. 16, Showtime) on the political leader also serves as an essential compendium of South African music over the last half century, with a particular emphasis on the country's lilting pop music from the 1950s. Featured artists range from The Skylarks (the lead singer was Miriam Makeba) and Mandela's personal favorite, the Manhattan Brothers, to such current stars as Johnny Clegg and South Africa's reigning pop diva, Brenda Fassie. The original score, composed by Cedric Samson, emphasizes the country's tradition of choral music, and is performed by such groups as the African National Congress Choir.
- Frank Scheck
Moonpie Dreams (Compass Records): Kate Campbell's music is lifted above the pack by that special literacy that is unique to America's South and by a sweet, Christian, goodness which runs through it. In 12 original songs, ranging from the quiet guitar accompaniment of "Waiting for the Weather to Break" to the full instrumentation of "See Rock City," Campbell tells stories that are uplifting and thought-provoking. Highlights include "Delmus Jackson," a song about pure, rock-steady faith; "When Panthers Roamed Arkansas," whose chorus, underscored by R&B flavored horns and B3 organ, will stick with you for days.
- Jef Scoville