You might call them the Brit Pack. But then George Michael, Bryan Ferry and David Sylvian really don't run together -- it's hard to imagine these very different types of pop ptar mingling outside of Live Aid.
Even if they may not care to admit it, there are a few links: Each singer struck out alone from a popular group, and each has an impossibly overripe romantic singing style -- Ferry's continental crooning minted the mold, which was followed by Sylvian's effete sighs and Michael's puppyish, straining-for-sincerity soul. Three new solo albums find each defining a discrete area of adult pop, with avant-idol Ferry sailing into more lucrative pop waters, Michael desperate to escape the teen-idol taint and Sylvian in search of ever more esoteric territory.
George Michael: 'Faith' After Michael's aggressively teen-targeted singles with Wham!, "Faith" (Columbia C 40867) is the sound of a singer trying hard to grow up. The stylistic move makes commercial sense -- Wham! fans are older now, too, and so Michael attempts, in his own superficial way, to write about "adult" topics such as sex, drugs and violence.
"Faith" opens with portentous chords from the Wham! hit "Freedom" on a church organ, then segues into the title track with iceberg-crisp chunks of acoustic guitar -- Michael, who is the closest thing to a pure pop genius since Elton John, has a knack for making a song sound inevitable. "Father Figure" seems to be aiming for controversy (is it about love or pedophilia?), with vaguely Eastern melodic figures and a deliberate ambiguity in the lyrics for those who will be looking for it.
And, after a synthesized burble, there it is -- the carefully crafted controversy-starter "I Want Your Sex," in two segments of suburban funk (you get the third as a bonus on the CD). After the 10-minute "Sex" session, Michael's stock rises again with the gospelly "One More Try" -- it sounds as if the singer absorbed something from his recent duet with Aretha Franklin. "Hard Day" is a shade more credible in the funk department, but the Prince-ly speeded-up vocals near the end are merely silly.
Then there's a cluster of "issue" songs: "Hand to Mouth" is a gloss on poverty; "Look at Your Hands" is a dullish chant about domestic violence; and "Monkey" is about how drugs mess up your dating life.
But for all his heavy breathing and moaning, the record smacks of sweatless solipsism. Michael is clearly aspiring to Prince-dom, performing all the instruments and vocals on several tracks, and though it sounds great on CD, with bottomless bass and a crystalline high end, this music is too clean, worked over, blueprinted -- the antiseptic sound of the hothouse.
Bryan Ferry: 'Bete Noire' From his days as auteur of Roxy Music's influential hybrid of art-rock and trash culture, to the tongue-in-chic elegance of his solo stints, stylist-esthete-poseur Ferry has been the haute house of designer music, putting his label on a blend of lush, late-night mood music and avant-garde weirdness.
His latest, "Bete Noire" (Reprise 25598), his first for the recently reactivated Reprise label, is as close to a ready-to-hear line as he's ever come. To ensure some airplay, he's brought in Madonna maestro Patrick Leonard, who sets the drum programs on "Dance Mix" and adds some trendy Latin accents.
But it's all still unmistakably Ferry, continuing the signature sound begun with Roxy's "Avalon" and continued through Ferry's "Boys and Girls." It's a carefully tailored, airbrushed, wealthy sound -- Ferry recorded the album in Paris and Nassau, and flew in high-priced help like Siedah Garrett, David Gilmour, Marcus Miller and some 40 others. The tracks are densely, solidly constructed, offering new nuance and detail on each listening.
The cover photograph is styled after Man Ray, and on the lyric sheet, the songs read like surrealist cutups. But they mesh beautifully with the musical collage Ferry and company concoct, and when Ferry sings them in his trembling tenor, it's like he's moving untouched through a frenzied carnival crowd (though he does lift himself out of his trademark ennui for a dance number or two).
The grand tour begins with "Limbo," an exotic ritual glimpsed through dense rhythmic foliage, followed by the danceable typewriter clacking that introduces "Kiss and Tell," about Ferry's shuttle romances making the tell-all tabloids.
The first single, "The Right Stuff," boasts guitar filigree by Johnny Marr of the now-defunct Smiths. Apparently that band's leader Morrissey was unhappy with Marr for dabbling with the rock elite, and it seems he has reason: Marr and Ferry have nicked the song wholesale from a 1986 Smiths B-side, called (significantly?) "Money Changes Everything."
"New Town" and "Day for Night" have clear rhythmic and melodic antecedents on Madonna's "True Blue" album, which was also cowritten by Leonard. But it's back to Ferry's patented pop sophistication with the title track, a Gallic mist of accordions, congas and siren coos.
David Sylvian: 'Secrets of the Beehive' While Sylvian doesn't have anywhere near the public profile of Ferry or Michael, as the former leader of the Roxy Music-influenced Japan he was a pop pinup boy. Then Sylvian disbanded the band and became the George Michael of ambient music, hanging out with the New Age crowd and creating ascetic, esoteric solo work like the tranquil "Brilliant Trees" and last year's two-record "Gone to Earth."
Sylvian's new "Secrets of the Beehive" (Virgin 7 90677) is encased in a sleeve designed by 23 Envelope, the folks who cloak albums by Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil in enigmatic imagery. Beyond the pictures of prickly, antique-looking objects is music of unrelieved -- almost soporific -- serenity.
Sylvian builds gentle swells and ripples of acoustic guitar, lazy streams of trumpet and cornet (by Mark Isham) and watercolor washes of piano and synthesizer (by Japanese superstar Ryuichi Sakamoto). Over these narcotic, opalescent settings floats his preternaturally calm voice, a mannered synthesis of Bowie/Ferry/David Byrne, on nine nearly indistinguishable songs with titles like "Orpheus" and "Mother and Child."