WHAT HAS 24 legs, multiple lives, no ears, no pulse and snores? The front row at a New Age concert. Not funny? Well, then the following roundup of light instrumental albums that fall into, or at least border on, the realm of New Age recordings may be of some interest to you.
Various artists "The Wilderness Collection" (Narada). Here's ample proof that Paul Winter and Mannheim Steamroller don't have a lock on atmospheric homages to nature's glories. These 16 pieces, an alternately soothing and inspirational mix of acoustic and synthesizer anthems, cover a lot of ground -- literally, beginning with a lush tribute to Yellowstone. Because a different composer and ensemble is featured on each track, the music never settles into a rut, and the best pieces -- guitarist Ralf Illenberger's sparkling "Sahara Sunrise" and Trapezoid's chamber-like "Tal," for instance -- have an exotic charm and quiet allure. Not a bad soundtrack for an autumn trip down Skyline Drive.
Nicholas "Bodymusic" (Nuage). For starters, the title is a misnomer. To paraphrase David Byrne, this ain't no aerobics tape. An admittedly talented electric and acoustic guitarist appearing at Joe and Mo's Friday and Saturday, Nicholas is a romantic who sounds a bit like George Benson at times, only sedated. Apart from the rhythmically emphatic "Dancing Girls," this album offers the sort of soft, sensuous, snoozy music that wouldn't sound out of place wafting out of the nearest elevator. Granted, Nicholas isn't averse to playing the blues on "See the Light, Touch the Wind" or to adding a country twang to "Tennessee Waltz," but most of the arrangements have a distinctly soulless and sanitized air about them.
Various artists "Nuage Music" (Nuage). More of the same from Nicholas and some of his like-minded labelmates. Acoustic piano, saxophones, rustling percussion and vocal chants are occasionally emphasized, but when all is played and done, it's still nap time for the most part.
Various artists "Collection One" (Sona Gaia). Like the Narada collection, this anthology is strengthened by its numbers and, in this case, a refreshing Old Age slant. The traditional and traditionally oriented compositions by Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser and Celtic harpist Judith Pintar and Vincenzo Zitello -- yes, even Italians play the Celtic harp these days -- are standouts. In a more contemporary vein, there are a couple of delightfully colorful and whimsical pieces by the West Coast quartet Ancient Future to compensate for the more contemplative and standard guitar and synth tracks.
Tom Doer "Andromeda" (DMP). Keyboardist and composer Tom Doer has a gift for melody, but in his liner notes he comes off sounding like a parody of a New Age composer: "The sense of motion in music suggests the vastness and diversity of the oceans of our lives." Say what? Fortunately, his keyboard creations, often colored by reeds brass and strings, aren't nearly as ponderous. The title track, in fact, could well have a lot of sailors dreaming about the deep blue sea all winter long.