Her 1992 follow-up, Real Love, marked a solid progression. Her fervor remained, but she applied it to keeping the flame alive. She was just as determined to maintain a relationship as she was to find one. However, things went awry on her third recording, 1994's So Natural (not released in the U.S.). She abandoned the up- and midtempo soul that worked so well for her in favor of slow, dirge-y torch songs. The tunes were poor vehicles, and her singing was often lethargic; she'd gone from true believer to hourly employee.

Her new self-titled recording arrived with the kind of big-budget promotion geared at making it a summer blockbuster (though it may have bombed, since the record had a middling debut on the charts). The video to the first single, "Never Gonna Give You Up," which features Stansfield walking naked through crowded city streets (ah, gratuitous nudity, another early '90s throwback), seems calculated. The music plays it very safe; the single is faithful to White's original, and there are loud echoes of tunes from the first two recordings amid the song list. What makes all this algebra worthwhile is Stansfield's voice. Again, she is singing as if each note were catharsis. Her fanaticism lifts songs that might otherwise have been exercises in homage. Her discussions of love embrace a teen-ager's naivete rather than a divorcee's savvy.

When, on "The Real Thing," she sings: "No more living in chains/ No, I don't give a damn what the people say/ There's no use holding back desire/ We've burnt our fingers, now let's jump into the flames," it's not poetry; it's dogma. It marks a return to form -- and yet, for all this devotion, it's the least of her three domestic releases.

By the time they get three or four records under their belt, most artists have found something that works, a technique that will save them from either 9-to-5-ing or doing session work. And they cling to that something with the tenacity of a small, frightened animal. For Stansfield, it's an obsessive compulsion for romance. Let's hope she holds on.

-- Martin Johnson

Forever Alien

If you ever doubted that musicians, including that too-cool species sniffing around in the underground, are basically a bunch of bug-collecting, stamp-coveting, bottle cap-hoarding, baseball card-fondling, thimble-cataloging geeks -- only with a fetish for sound, rather than toys -- allow me to introduce you to Sonic Boom and his latest project (in the strictest science-fair sense), Spectrum. Mr. Boom (known pre-pseudonymously as Pete Kember) was of course a member of the eternal droners Spacemen 3, who achieved some renown years back by simply proselytizing about all the drugs they took while allowing their instruments to hum in a more-or-less player-free fashion. Take a line of feedback, interrupt it here and there with a few hesitant drum strikes when the percussionist remembers the stick in his hand, and there you have an instant Sonic Boom classic.

Which is not meant to be too dismissive. Many groups sound better when heard through the oddball sieve of college-radio programming, played against differing varieties of high weirdness, and the Spacemen 3 were no exception. But their output was really more interesting as an artifact than as an art form -- as an invoice for freedom, showing that someone could, and in fact was entirely willing to, be that weird and dull. Auditing such stuff with any focus proves difficult; it's like studying shopping music. (Drugs help; anything's better when it sits on a Ritz.) And Spectrum really isn't all that different, except that Boom and his new ancillary cronies have swapped the penis substitute of a guitar for the brain substitute of an electrode. Just look at the liner notes: Boom is credited with "EMS Synthi & VCS3, OSCar, Theremin, Serge Modular Music System, Vocoder & Vocals." (What was the model number on that last one?) Alf Hardy gets the nod for his "Voltage Controlled Synthesizers, Vocoder & Vibraphone," and extra special thanks go out to Pete Bassman for his ... nope, for his "Programming Vibrations." Throughout the liner notes are various pictures and diagrams of some of these technologies, as if showing us all the wires, dials, and switches gives the artists some sort of license.

And, of course, the results are once again listenable only in the most passive sense, as a sort of remote background radiation you might notice coming in on the dish once in a while, but then dismiss as nothing more than the odd bit of cosmic flatulence. Sure, there are words; on "Owsley," perhaps running short on LSD, Boom asks, "Owsley, where are you now?" But the words are just another atmospheric bubble, as essential to the understanding of a Spectrum track as any of the "Creature Feature" warbles or signal-to-noise ratios. Collegiate, iconoclastic, and obscure as it may be, this sort of experimentalism is far dorkier than anything Thomas Dolby ever came up with. But by all means, go out and secure this algebraic product for your personal shopping environment. Be a part of the underground. Be a geek.

-- Michael Batty

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