THE POP MUSIC field has been dominated of late by rootsy American rockers. Now, out go the jangly guitars and in come the chiming synths as a new wavelet of bright Brit-pop arrives, short on introspection and integrity, but long on melody, electro-gizmos and made-for-video hairdos. Make way for the next wave of the British Invasion:
RICK ASTLEY --
"Whenever You Need Somebody" (RCA 6822). With the success of callow young singers like Tiffany and Debbie Gibson and now Rick Astley, the pop biz seems to be returning to the way things worked in the early '60s, when Svengali promoters routinely turned tiny-talent teens into idols.
But Rick Astley is no Elvis. He's not even a Fabian. Before his hit single broke, Astley was literally sweeping floors and making tea for record producers Stock Aitken and Waterman, whose PWL Corporation churns out a steady production line of dumb but undeniably ear-catching hits for the likes of Mel & Kim, Bananarama and Samantha Fox. Astley, an ingenuous-looking redhead, is the first fella in their stable, and who would guess that voice would come out of him? On insidiously catchy tunes like the inescapable "Never Gonna Give You Up" and its echo "Together Forever," he's got a strong, distinctive sound that recalls Michael McDonald and James Ingram, but at this early stage it betrays little real passion or invention. Better get used to this guy -- he'll be around on radio for a while on the strength of tracks like "It Would Take a Strong Strong Man."
JOHNNY HATES JAZZ --
"Turn Back The Clock" (Virgin 90860). From the first spin, this one sounds like a Greatest Hits collection. It begins with the debut single "I Don't Want To Be a Hero," whose deceptively light-hearted approach masks a poignant anti-war, anti-draft message. On other can't-miss cuts like "Shattered Dreams" and "Foolish Heart," JHJ synthesizes the light melodic and percussive touch of Culture Club, the synth savvy of Depeche Mode and the playing-to-the-cameras expertise of Duran Duran. Nothing original here, but it'll be a pleasure to hear this airy, upbeat stuff on the radio.
"All That Jazz" (A&M 5163). Breathe sounds like what you'd get if you layered Wham's pop sensibility with Steely Dan's jazzbo sophistication. Fronted by the breathless David Glasper (he sounds like Boy George with an actual vocal range), this four-man band has been working over this batch of songs since 1985, so it all comes off a bit too studied, not as breezy as the best pop. Still, Breathe loads at least two or three hooks into every tune, and the band is requisitely photogenic. Actually, come to think of it, it's gonna be hard to tell this bunch from Johnny Hates Jazz.
AZTEC CAMERA --
"Love" (Sire 25646). Aztec Camera has been around for a while, actually Scotsman Roddy Frame and whoever he feels like playing with at the time. Frame makes a remarkably successful move from his wistfully confessional acoustic guitar-based pop to a brighter, more muscular sound tinged with electronicized r&b. The songwriting, always a strong suit, hasn't suffered either, judging from tunes like "How Men Are" and "Working in a Goldmine," which manage to be both melodically memorable and lyrically meaningful, a rarity on the pop charts these days. Frame delivers his observations on men and women in an appealingly reedy voice, with substantial help from American soul sessionmen and singers. The LP winds up with a fond look back at Frame's early style on the melancholy "Killermont Street."
"Wonderful Life" (A&M 5165). Singer/songwriter Colin Vearncombe picked an apt stage name when he called himself Black. The young Scotsman's songs and voice combine to produce a wonderfully doleful, luxuriantly melodic pop that sounds something like a male version of Sade'. The winding melody of the title track snakes itself into your memory with sly insistence. And there are at least two or three strong followups here, including dripping-with-irony titles like "Sweetest Smile" and "Everything's Coming Up Roses."
SCARLETT AND BLACK --
"Scarlett and Black" (Virgin 90647). No, not that Black. This one, singer/synther Robin Hild, is 1/2 of a duo, the other one being Annie Lennox-lookalike Sue West, aka Scarlett. On radio-friendly stuff like "You Don't Know" and "City of Dreams (The Last Frontier)" the team achieves a featherweight pop sound that's like an ultracommercial cross between Toto and Fleetwood Mac, with lots of tinkly keyboards and interestingly-echoed cooing harmonies. Strangely, there's not really much aural evidence of Scarlett, who whisper-shadows Black's high, airbrushed vocals most of the time.