Reviews

Which would be fine -- daring, even -- if the band made it work more often. But the bulk of Nerves mostly keeps busy gurgling up wandering art-school beats and noises that never cohere. Simply drifting up scales and down again while the odd breakbeats splatter across, songs like "Hit Me," "Sound of Accelerating Concrete," and the title track are little more than claustrophobic sketches. Real drums help, particularly on the raucous closer "King Ape," but not nearly enough to redeem the music as rock, or even put it in a league with the band's Teutonic forebears. "We Are N to X," as the pixellated voice says at the start of the album. "Welcome to our world." It's a maddeningly small one, built for cyborgs and those who aspire to become them.

-- Mark Athitakis

Rebekah
Remember to Breathe
(Elektra)

Last fall on her cover of Ani DiFranco's "32 Flavors," Alana Davis sang, "I am a poster girl with no poster." At the time, she was right. There were very few black artists who used folk-rock traditions actively supported by major labels. But this season there are a lot of recordings by artists routinely classified as "urban" that owe as much -- if not more -- to the poetic introspection of Joni Mitchell's Blue, the urbane savvy of her The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and the wry sophistication of Joan Armatrading's Show Some Emotion as they are indebted to the more traditionally oriented powerhouse R&B stylings of Aretha Franklin's Young, Gifted and Black or the urgent hip-hop soul longing of Mary J. Blige's What's the 411? Last month the quirky young singer Smooth released Reality; although she pays lip service to R&B conventions on the first single, "Strawberries," she devotes the rest of the album to insightful commentary and acoustic guitar-driven backing. Next month, three artists on that same tip -- Rachid, Angel Grant, and Ricky Jones -- will release new recordings. So far, the best of the crew crowding that poster is Rebekah, a 25-year-old Cleveland native who has released the strikingly diverse and thoughtful Remember to Breathe.

Rebekah's music is direct and fastidious. She doesn't waste time refuting the usual archetypes of black femininity -- Sapphire, Jemima, et al. Those characters simply don't exist in her world. Rather than worrying about who she isn't, she spends her time defining who she is. She delves into relationships on "Hey Genius," where she says she's tired of vain men, and on "Be Your Own," where she advises her guy "to stop trying to be my man and instead be your own." She sings these songs with a small shiny voice that coils inwardly and leaps out with a variety of effects. On "Keep It a Secret" and "I Wish I Could Believe Me," she embodies a rocker's insolence; on the title track and "Pining," she maintains a jazz singer's precision; and on "Be Your Own" and "Cardboard Boxes," she has a soul diva's sauciness. All of her songs possess a sophisticated sense of dynamics. Where Rebekah fails is in the mawkishness of "Little Black Girl," and in general she's so meticulous that the album seems a shade too precious. She covers a lot of ground, but stops short of claiming it as her own.

Still, unlike those who went before her, equally eclectic Tasmin Archer for instance, Rebekah will likely have time to develop. This new wing of R&B is one of several manifestations of urban music's current success. According to Soundscan, in 1997, hip hop and R&B combined for 31 percent of all record sales, which is a significant increase from 1994's 22 percent. This growing popularity has enabled hip hop to sprout two left wings, the DJ movement and the cosmic thinkers like Busta Rhymes and Missy Elliott. In R&B it has led to a school of proud romantics like Erykah Badu and Maxwell, and it may be nurturing the growth of a unique bunch who embrace a broad spectrum of musical backgrounds. After all, the best soul music is about the search for truth, and in Janet Jackson's "Got Till It's Gone," Q-Tip reminded everyone, "Joni Mitchell never lies."

-- Martin Johnson

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