ALL RIGHT, CLASS. You've suffered through your final exams and survived. Now let's turn in those papers and exercise all those new-found test-reading skills as we grade the albums that have been slipping in the door prior to the final school bell.
An album, after all, is something like the answer to a musical essay question. To score points, originality counts. So does presentation. And, most of all, the answer has to be right. OK, let's call the roll.
Joan Armatrading, Hearts and Flowers (A&M 75021-5298).
Originality: Poor. Retreads of many of the same personal relationship issues that she's been singing about since she first came around in the mid-'70s.
Presentation: Good. A clear case of style triumphing over substance. Her husky, dusky voice has never been more assured. Arrangements are lullingly electronic, with a couple of notable exceptions.
Conclusion: She's best when she breaks out into new rhythms and sonic textures in "Good Times" and "Someone's in the Background." Too bad she doesn't do it more often. Final grade -- C minus.
David Baerwald, Bedtime Stories (A&M 75021-5289).
Originality: Very good. Terse, thoughtfully gloomy lyrics about the details of personal loss of the sort that distinguished his part in the highly regarded 1986 David David "Boomtown" album.
Presentation: Fair. His delivery doesn't punch up the stinging impact of his words. Instead of being a knockout, it sinks in slowly.
Conclusion: An album that promises rewards for anyone who'll listen to it long enough to find them. Final grade -- B minus.
Buckwheat Zydeco, Where There's Smoke, There's Fire (Island 422-842 925).
Originality: Very good. Blues-rock with a Louisiana twist -- it's accordion-powered -- from a man who tore up the Lafayette Tap Room here earlier this week.
Presentation: Excellent. An authentic regional sound that rocks, courtesy of producer David Hidalgo, who did the same for his own group, Los Lobos. Helping on his remake of "Hey, Good Lookin' " is country star Dwight Yoakam.
Conclusion: A party album that leaps with fun from lilting zydeco to lively blues to familiar rockers like "Route 66" and the Rolling Stones' "Beast of Burden." Final grade -- A.
Michael Franks, Blue Pacific (Reprise 26183).
Originality: Fair. Ten years ago his sweet, romantic pop-jazz was all snuggly and smart with its double entendres. Now his multiple allusions seem like a bad habit he can't break.
Presentation: Very good. None of Franks' three producers -- pop-jazz gadabout Jeff Lorber, ex-Steely Dan Walter Becker, the ever-so-slick Tommy LiPuma -- make the mistake of trying to upstage the gentle caress of his voice.
Conclusion: Since the man is one of this teacher's pets, he can do no wrong. But it sure would be nice if he would do more right. Final grade -- C.
Hothouse Flowers, Home (London 828-197).
Originality: Very good. Irish blue-eyed soul with a knack for high sentiment in items like "Christchurch Bells" and high energy in a rampaging remake of "I Can See Clearly Now."
Presentation: Very good. Singer Liam O'Maonlai's voice has the power of Bono and emotive qualities of Van Morrison. Arrangements are light and acoustic-sounding without being overly folky. Last few songs lose distinction, however. They're too cumulatively mellow.
Conclusion: Earnest and interesting enough to keep the college/alternative fans that picked up their first album, but not likely to reach anyone else. Final grade -- B plus.
Little Caesar, Little Caesar (David Geffen Co. DGC-24288).
Originality: Fair. Despite all the pre-release hype, it's just another greasy, leather-clad band from L.A. pumping out rough-edged hard rock and a lot of the cliches that go with it -- to the point that many titles of the songs they wrote duplicate the titles of older, more famous songs by other people.
Presentation: Good. High marks for attitude and for including one honest-to-God older, more famous song -- Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools." Warning label on cover seems to promise more filth than they actually deliver.
Conclusion: Unlike more derivative debuts by new groups like the Black Crowes and the London Quireboys, it's harder to pin this quintet down to a single influence, which is to their credit. Final grade -- B minus.
Jeff Lynne, Armchair Theatre (Reprise 26184).
Originality: Fair. Though this sounds like the work of a lot of other people -- the other Traveling Wilburys, Dave Edmunds -- it's mostly of his own devising. He should have devised some more and thrown away his two old chestnuts -- "September Song" and (especially) "Stormy Weather."
Presentation: Very good. The lushness of his old Electric Light Orchestra symphonic rock is trimmed back. Good buddy George Harrison is a major ingredient, lending his guitar and harmonies to four of the tracks.
Conclusion: Despite songwriting and multi-instrumental credits, Lynne shows less personality than solo albums by fellow Wilburys Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and Harrison. Still, there's no denying the easy appeal of songs like "Lift Me Up" and "Now You're Gone." Final grade -- B.
The Pursuit of Happiness, One-Sided Story (Chrysalis F-21757).
Originality: Very good. Few songs are as wickedly clever as this Toronto band's opening track, "Food," which gives new meaning to recreational eating. Unfortunately, none of the other tunes here come close.
Presentation: Good. A mix of singer-songwriter Moe Berg's loopiness and producer Todd Rundgren's tongue-in-cheek approximations of normalcy. Mostly it's Rundgren's way.
Conclusion: Every radio station on the continent should start serving "Food." Final grade -- B plus.
Andrew Ridgeley, Son of Albert (Columbia C-46188).
Originality: Fair. No, he doesn't rake up the memories of Wham (he was George Michael's partner in the duo). Instead, he rakes up every other stray current in present-day British pop, from glam-rock revival to third world rhythms.
Presentation: Good. Tirelessly energetic and upbeat, as good British pop ought to be, though without George Michael's animal magnetism.
Conclusion: Critics have trashed this one unmercifully, but it's catchy and super-competent. A better test will be radio airplay. Final grade -- B minus.
Spyro Gyra, Fast Forward (GRP Records GRD-9608).
Originality: Very good. Not the sunny melodies of this Buffalo-born pop-jazz band's decade-old breakthrough, "Shaker Song," or the Latin excursions that followed, but rather a moody and occasionally bold bit of stylistic soul-searching. Includes the first vocal (albeit a wordless one) ever heard on a Spyro Gyra album.
Presentation: Very good. Returning to a seven-piece lineup with addition of a first-rate percussionist (Marc Quinones from Latino star Willie Colon's band) gives it punch enough to break beyond its reputation for mellowness. Attention to textures, notably in Dave Samuels' leadoff "Bright Lights" and Jeremy Wall's "4MD," make this first album for their new record label distinctive from the rest.
Conclusion: Though the band is now known as "Spyro Gyra featuring Jay Beckenstein," it's not a leader's star turn, but rather a better-balanced ensemble. Final grade -- A minus.