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Mary J. Blige
Mary
(MCA)

Ever since her 1992 debut, What's the 411?, super soul sista Mary J. Blige has been looking for both the perfect beat and a way of making a huge personal life statement. That she hasn't quite found either yet has made for some invigorating if somewhat repetitive listening. The three albums (including Mary) released since that first gutsy, greasy R&B slam have steered Blige from a sassy New Jill to a bitchy individualist to, now, with Mary, an adult soul crooner with lots of friends.

Joining Blige on this nearly 75-minute opus are the still-hot Lauryn Hill, the brrr-cold Babyface, the white Eric Clapton, the very white Elton John, and queen soul mother Aretha Franklin. That's a lot of guest-artist baggage for a gal aiming to make that definitive personal, artistic declaration. Yet Blige pretty much runs Mary; besides a few missteps (like the lame duet with her ex, K-Ci), it pretty much is Blige's new public outing.

Still, her pals do lend some considerable help. Hill's multi-artiste stamp (producer, writer, arranger, backup singer) is all over "All That I Can Say," Mary's smoothest cut. And the collaboration with Franklin, "Don't Waste Your Time," is a femme fest of high-decibel diva wailing and melodramatics worthy of the matchup; it's a new-school hip-hop/old-school R&B summit that spreads to most of the rest of the album. Blessed with a classic soul voice, but educated in post-New Jack ways, Blige has shaped just about every female soul singer who's come after her (Brandy, Monica, or any of those new girl groups wouldn't have record contracts if it weren't for her). Mary is a break from the past and that legacy. Blige is still at the forefront of the soaring-ladies-with-attitude movement, but the reservations here declare that she's ready to move on. -- Michael Gallucci

John Prine
In Spite of Ourselves
(Oh Boy)
John Prine is one of his generation's most lyrical and thoughtful songwriters. That's why it's a bit disappointing that his latest album, the country-duet-themed In Spite of Ourselves, includes only one self-penned tune among its throng of well-heeled covers. It's not that Prine, a serviceable singer aided by some of the genre's finest here, is any less haunting on other artists' material, but the dedication and devotion with which he invests his own songs rarely transfers to another's voice.

This opus of failed marriages, sinking relationships, and fights for romantic survival certainly has cachet going for it. Alt-country gals Iris DeMent, Lucinda Williams, and Emmylou Harris prod Prine and goose even the most routine of songs. And traditional Nashvillians like Patty Loveless and Connie Smith sparkle in the setting. Prine even brings along wife Fiona for a turn here, but it's DeMent -- whose Okie-on-the-prairie twang cuts an authenticism in every word that leaves her mouth -- who powers the bulk of In Spite of Ourselves.

Opening the album with a cover of "(We're Not) The Jet Set," a George Jones-Tammy Wynette oldie, and cuddling next to Prine's heart on the title track (the sole Prine original here and one of the set's highlights), DeMent's coarse-but-sweet tone nuzzles up perfectly against Prine's detached everyman speak. Plus, she gets to help out on a decent Felice Bryant song as well as a take on "Let's Invite Them Over," a wife-swapping tale straight from the '70s. She instills both pathos and humor into her numbers, giving Prine a run for his name-above-the-title status on In Spite of Ourselves.

Ultimately, though, this is Prine's album, and he can also claim the flaws that are patterned throughout it. The only solo song, the closing "Dear John (I Sent Your Saddle Home)," is one of the few times he sounds totally comfortable. He plays well with others -- the Williams duet/medley of "Wedding Bells" and Hank Williams's "Let's Turn Back the Years" is particularly good -- but too often In Spite of Ourselves plays like a vanity project. -- Michael Gallucci

David Bowie
Hours . . .
(Virgin)

Nine Inch Nails
The Fragile
(Nothing/Interscope)

Ground Control to Major Bowie: We have a problem. Can you hear us, Major Bowie? The master of reinvention has gone back into the studio to meditate on his primal self, but the problem is, the man behind the masks isn't as exciting as the masks he wore. It's ironic that the most memorable song on Hours . . ., a collection of dull, plodding ballads, is "What's Really Happening," a song with lyrics written by contest winner Alex Grant. Bowie will share the royalties of the track, but he may have to cut Grant into the legal fees, too, if the Supremes get wind of a melody that's merely a slower version of "You Keep Me Hangin' On." Which raises the question: What is really happening to Bowie as he crosses the half-century mark?

Once the formidable icon of all pre- and post-cyber/industrial musicians, Bowie has slowly withered into a forgettable shell of himself. Or, as he himself says in "Thursday's Child": "Maybe I'm bored/Out of my time." Maybe, but that's no reason to bore your listeners.

The flip side of Bowie is modern cyber/industrial icon Trent Reznor, who was so respectful of Bowie that they toured together in an effort to wed old and new. Reznor, in turn, had so much of an influence on his hero that, by 1994, Bowie tried his hand at industrial rock with Outside. The tour, and Bowie's album, felt like a ceremonial passing of the baton -- the real irony is that Hours . . . takes less than an hour to spin, but feels like it drags on for days, while the long-awaited new release from Nine Inch Nails is a two-disc monolith that literally takes hours to finish, yet leaves the listener wishing Reznor had managed to squeeze out a third disc.

The Fragile plays like one long industrial symphony, with the different movements conveniently titled as new tracks. Labeled "Left" and "Right," the discs go from "Left" tracks dominated by radio-ready anger and beats to the more meditative "Right" side, which sounds like something by the industrial pioneer Coil (which itself has plans to release an album on Reznor's Nothing Records).

Reznor hasn't broken any new ground with The Fragile, but the little world he has created for himself from the tunnel vision of Nine Inch Nails continues to be fodder for fresh and interesting sounds. He found his creative voice, and -- rather than try the old reinvention shtick -- he's sticking to it. Bowie would do well to follow suit. -- David Powers

Luke Slater
Wireless
(Novamute)

Long known for his love of all things harsh and hard from the '80s electro scene, Luke Slater, an English DJ who has recorded under a variety of monikers (Morganistic, Clementine, Planetary Assault Systems), astounds again with Wireless, a starkly rendered album that illustrates the lasting effects of the American house music aesthetic on British DJ culture.

In only the slightest sense, however, does Wireless pick up where Slater's first full length, 1997's Freek Funk, left off -- this is another unrelenting beat trip, an experiment in the dynamics of different electronic percussion patterns. Slater's stylistic ties to the harsh aura of Detroit house means that strong beats come first in his music, with rhythm a close second, and everything else sprinkled over the top in conservative amounts. Freek Funk saw the British impresario take a moody stroll through the underside of various breaks and rhythms; at times he embraced jungle ("Bless Bless") but also got down to brass tacks with no-nonsense 4/4 techno ("Purely").

With Wireless, Slater has refined his raw open beats and gravitated toward more straightforward four-count drum work. Slight variations occur, as complex jazz/dub drums worthy of Meat Beat Manifesto pop up on "Sheer Five Five," and rumbling bass floats through the fabric of the tech-heavy "Let Eat All Vanbrook." At his best, Slater indulges in tight electro sequencing ("All Exhale") and unrelenting industrial jackboot stomping ("Bolt Up").

In the same way that Wireless isn't as stylistically broad or adventurous as Freek Funk, it's not as thematically unified, either. Slater's tendency to link pointed rhythmic music and ambient-leaning filler just doesn't work as well this time around. That said, whatever force is driving him to create such powerful music is finding better ways to make its way out of his soul and into our hands. Ultimately, Wireless is a riveting trip worthy of the dark myth surrounding Detroit and Chicago, the towns that helped spawn the hard edge of early electro. -- Heath K. Hignight

Bis
Social Dancing
(Grand Royal/Capitol)

On its 1997 debut, the Scottish teen trio Bis overloaded with drum machines, rinky-dink keyboards, chirpy boy-meets-girl vocals, and a ton of enthusiasm that never quite jelled with the finished product's general listlessness. It was kinda quirky, kinda fun, and very forgettable. Now in their early twenties, the group's members show more spirit on their second album, sharpening their instruments along the way and pouring on the spunk. It's still pretty forgettable, but the ride makes for a fun cheap thrill.

Opting for a glitzier punk vibe, Bis (Manda Rin and brothers Sci-Fi Steven and John Disco) spits out stupid little pop ditties with all the zest of, say, any one of those one-hit-wonder bands that MTV used to show around the clock during its first couple of years. Social Dancing bounces up and down on the trampoline of modern rock, conjuring the ghosts of long-dead influences and their head-bopping riffs. Bis giddily plays along, as if the rest of the '80s and '90s never happened. This is for the kids who missed out on the fun the first time around.

Nothing on Social Dancing is as catchy or as junky fun as the trio's theme song for the Cartoon Network's The Powerpuff Girls. While Bis wants to be a cute animated superhero, you can't just throw on a costume and call yourself Aquaman. There has to be some passion connected to the task, not just connect-the-dots formula. And Bis, called upon to save the world (or something like that), just isn't up to it.

The thirteen songs here (produced by ex-Gang of Four member Andy Gill) jingle and jangle at all the right times, and there is a general mood surrounding the band's manner and throwaway performance that suggests maybe it is aware of just how disposable this all is. Social Dancing's best tracks -- the slinky "Detour" and the aptly titled "Eurodisco" -- stand out because it's at these moments Bis breaks from method and turns things up a notch, updating the Gang of Four brainy stomp along the way and offering hope for its very own cartoon future. -- Michael Gallucci

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