Lets Praise the Lord for Mary

Article excerpt

Byline: David Bennun

MaryJ. Blige Growing Pains Geffen, out tomorrow [pounds sterling]12.99 inc p&p (01634 832789)

Jack Johnson Sleep Through The Static Brushfire, out tomorrow [pounds sterling]12.99 inc p&p(01634 832789) * Hot Chip Made In The Dark EMI, out tomorrow

[pounds sterling]10.99 inc p&p (01634832789) *** The career of self-proclaimed undisputed Queen of R&B MaryJ.Blige canbe dividedintotwophases: pre- and post-clean-up. Most stars do their most exciting workbyfarbeforetheyditchthe booze, drugs and promiscuity; thereafter,theymaybemuchhappier people, but their music tends to be as much fun as their lifestyle.

Blige is the notable exception. She wasgoodbeforeshediscovered psychobabble and the Lord. Now, after years in which shes sung aboutlittle else, shes never been in better form.

From the title onwards, Growing Pains would read like the transcript of aself-help seminarwere any reading involved.Fortunately,listeningis whats required, and its a corker of an album, which not even reams ofOprah-esque empowerment doctrine can spoil. Its too sharp, too lively and (inthe best sense) too slick and skilfully executed for that.

In fairness to Blige, its not as if R&B, with its roots dipping into Gospel, isa stranger to this type of pep-talk, particularly on the distaff side. Theanswer songs of James Browns female covocalists, or Aretha Franklins version ofRespect, are direct antecedents to Bliges much more prosaic accounts of herpersonal development.

Literal they may be, but good luck trying to sit still through themif somethingheredoesnt make you shake more than your head, Id recom-mend checking your pulse.

As is so often the case with contemporary R&B, you could compile a much betteralbum by leaving out most of the slower tracks. That aside, theres plenty torelish in the range and virtuosity of the songwriting, production and Bligesown performances.

The variety alone is enough to hold your attention: the light, tappy-toe funkof Work That; Grown Womans juddering, Teddy-Riley-style swingbeat; themagnificently melodramatic sermon-ising of Roses; the fluid, updated Phillysound (particularly hard to carry off without descending into blandness) onTill The Morning. …