STEVIE WONDER is one '60s survivor for whom the past is not a burden but an inspiration.
"The '60s was a great period," Wonder recently told Q magazine. "There was a sense of hope that we have yet to get back to. Spirituality was significant to people. . . . It seems that now there's an attempt to destroy hope."
Wonder, who recorded his first hit 32 years ago with "Fingertips," just released his first non-soundtrack album in eight years.
It may not be vintage Stevie Wonder, but the new record was worth the wait. Wonder, 44, has never lost his pop sensibility and soulful fire. "Conversation Peace" is a '90s CD filled with musical influences from Wonder's '60s roots.
"Sensuous Whisper" is totally contemporary with a grinding beat that manages to fuse jazz and hip-hop. Wonder then pumps out a pulsating dance-hall rhythm on "Tomorrow the Robins Will Sing."
Wonder has always been a crossover artist, the trademark of Motown performers. He never gets too funky for the crowd, and shimmering R & B licks dominate the infectious "Take the Time Out (to Love Someone)."
Anita Baker's vocals and Branford Marsalis' sax add power to Wonder's efforts. Baker supplies the harmony on "Sensuous Whisper" while Marsalis' smooth sax provides just the right icing on Wonder's delectable musical mix.
At times, however, Wonder can be a tad too sweet. "For Your Love," the first single, and "Taboo to Love" are examples of Wonder trying too hard to tug the heartstrings.
Wonder is at his best singing from the gut, as on "My Love Is With You," a piercing snapshot of inner-city despair and hope.
These 13 songs prove Wonder still has the touch and the soul. The new record does not match his remarkable past efforts such as "Talking Book" or "Innervision," but Wonder remains a vibrant, important force in American music.
The title track, with its gospel inspiration and spiritual quest, is as heartfelt a piece of pop as Wonder has ever created. The song, like the album, is a shining example of his artistic integrity. Rating: ****.
Elton John, like Stevie Wonder, has been rocking for three decades. John, though, has lost his edge. The once hard-rocking, wild piano man is content these days to make cheesy soundtracks for Disney movies.
John may win Academy Award nominations for his film scores, but he no longer has the urgency or attitude to keep his music fresh. His newest CD is sleepy, predictable and dripping with sentimentality.
"Believe" lyrically offers hope but gets lost in a slow, mournful march. "Please" has a nice, jangling guitar sound, but the lyrics slide into mediocrity with lines such as, "We've been flipped like a coin/both of us landing face down."
Highlights here are "Latitude," which has a catchy folk/country sound, and "Made in England," a song that kicks out a steady beat. The rest, though, is a reminder that John's best music is behind him. Rating: **.
PJ Harvey is one of those alternative media darlings whom all the hip rock magazines rave about. Polly Jean does have a fresh sound and touches a raw nerve on topics such as love, sexuality and feminism.
But she lacks a voice and production skills. Sometimes the garage-band ethic and cheap production values detract from the power of her work.
Despite those failings, Harvey knows how to spin a tune and a story. "To Bring You My Love" taunts the listener with a heavy bass line, which also appears in "Long Snake Moan." Harvey turns to a mixture of folk and blues and chills out on "I Think I'm a Mother."
Harvey enjoys playing games in the studio, and the CD is filled with muffled voices, fuzzy guitars and distortion. That turns numbers such as "Working for the Man" and "C'mon Billy" into experimental delights.
Harvey may not live up to the hype and her music still lacks coherence, but it remains fascinating and original. Rating: ***.
Tribute albums bring risky results. Paying tribute to Led Zeppelin is fraught with danger because it's virtually impossible to capture the band's style and spirit.
That's why the new Zep tribute is such a bust.
Do we really need the ubiquitous Sheryl Crow howling her way through "D'yer Mak'er"? How about Hootie and the Blowfish fumbling with "Hey Hey What Can I Do," or aging glamour boys Duran Duran trying hard to be hip on "Thank You." Blind Melon and 4 Non Blondes fail miserably to sound like Zeppelin.
The Rollins Band nearly saves the day with a torrid "Four Sticks." Helmet is equally explosive on "Custard Pie" and Cracker adds a nice touch to "Good Times Bad Times."
The most painful moment comes when aging Zep headbanger Robert Plant teams with opera wanna-be Tori Amos on a totally disorganized "Down by the Seaside." Stick to the old Zep records instead of this cheap imitation. Rating: **.
Harry Nilsson left a lasting mark on contemporary music from the late '60s until his recent death. Nilsson's music was literate, alluring and thoroughly enjoyable.
It's all contained on "The Harry Nilsson Anthology." It's impossible to resist the childlike whimsy of "Good Old Desk" or the introspective social commentary of "Everybody's Talkin."
Nilsson could turn out a poignant pop ballad like "Without You" or just have goofy fun on "Coconut." Nilsson's music is filled with mood and character on such numbers as "I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City." And he can rock with anybody on "Jump Into the Fire." The double CD is a fitting tribute to Nilsson's music. Rating: **** 1/2 .
STEVIE WONDER Conversation Peace (Motown 314-53-0238-2)
ELTON JOHN Made in England (Rocket 314-526185-2)
PJ HARVEY To Bring You My Love (Island 314-524085-2)
VARIOUS ARTISTS Encomium: A Tribute to Led Zeppelin (Atlantic 82731-4)
THE HARRY NILSSON ANTHOLOGY Personal Best (RCA 66354-2-07863)