It was only a little over a year ago that Jeff Buckley became a cliche: the promising young rocker dead before his time. He went for a late swim in Tennessee's Wolf River and washed up on a Memphis shore days later. Not only did this grant him swift entry into the pantheon of the Brilliant Songwriter Cut Down in His Prime, but it placed him alongside his own father, folkie Tim Buckley, who died of an overdose at 28. The two barely knew each other, but the younger Buckley's short career was plagued from the start by the comparison. The result of any songwriter's untimely transition from minor artist to tragic figure is, of course, the posthumous release that functions as memorial service. Buckley's two-CD set -- culled from studio demos and four-track recordings for what would have been the follow-up to his 1994 debut Grace -- was arranged and organized by his mother, Mary Guibert, with the help of Soundgarden's Chris Cornell.
A final document curated so close to the survivors' hearts prompts the fear that, as listeners, we're being instructed in visceral response, that every potentially soul-tugging moment is placed and timed for maximum effect -- in short, that this de facto tribute accords the music an importance that the actual tracks can't live up to. So it's a relief to note that although there's no shortage of macabre sentiments in the lyrics ("I feel so ... collectible!" sneers the singer on "Witches' Rave"), Guibert and Cornell did right by their man by resisting the romantic approach, which might well have involved turning Sketches into an aural companion to the Web pages that honor Buckley with freshman-poetry-seminar scribblings and photos of dead flowers.
All this means, really, is that Sketches does more than flatter Buckley. The first disc compiles studio demos produced by Tom Verlaine that would have been reworked with another producer had the singer not taken that fateful dip. (Buckley supposedly hated the production.) The second includes alternate mixes of the same studio recordings followed by a handful of four-track works in progress. On his first full record, Grace, Buckley showed off his talents: an over-the-top, torch croon that took his emotional, sometimes metal-inflected songs and covers to often operatic heights. Unlike Grace, which flowed seamlessly, Sketches is an oddly cut puzzle of truncated melodies and weird rhythms that stop and shift just when you've gotten used to them. But this has more to do with Buckley's evolving style than with the inherent limitations of the unfinished record. On Grace, Buckley's overweening Robert Plant-ishness -- combined with the mystical dream imagery that pervaded his lyrics -- occasionally veered close to the aural equivalent of airbrushed van art. But as dramatically emotional as it was, Grace was simultaneously a marvel of restraint -- by working the space between just enough and too much, Buckley came up with beautiful results: "Lover, You Should Have Come Over" and his cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" are the best examples.
The studio tracks on Sketches, on the other hand, start from what seems like a position of denial. The base elements of arty exposition, folky plangency, and cock-rock posturing are there, but much of Sketches suggests that Buckley was ready to eighty-six his choirboy/loverman ethereality in favor of a full spectrum of rough edges. It doesn't al-ways happen, or it happens halfway -- the chunky, plodding "Yard of Blonde Girls" is tempered by the Al Green-y "Everybody Here Wants You"; the grating "Haven't You Heard" is followed up by the dreamy "I Know We Could Be So Happy Baby (If We Wanted to Be)." But he's trying, and even the choice of covers signifies a departure; where he once employed his operatic pipes to channel Nina Simone and Edith Piaf, now he's doing Genesis.
Equally telling are the four-track experiments on the second disc, particularly the raunchy "Your Flesh Is So Nice," which might well be Buckley perfecting an Iggy Pop impersonation ("I take off my belt/ Whip the staircase/ Kill all the men") or otherwise joking around, but it's actually the most fun of all the four-track stuff. Whether these were destined for inclusion on the second album isn't clear; it's hard to imagine anyone waiting for something like the atonal, never-ending "Murder Suicide Meteor Slave." On the other hand, the acoustic "Jewel Box" is so perfectly formed that it inspires a brief, sick moment of gratitude that Buckley didn't live long enough to either pouf it up in the studio or relegate it to some outlying corner of his bedroom.
By now it's practically mandated that even the most polished of arty musicians come forth with an armload of early/embarrassing four-track noodlings to share with the world (see P.J. Harvey, Liz Phair), so it's probable that anyone not familiar with Buckley's oeuvre wouldn't even know of his Brilliant Songwriter Cut Down etc. status if he or she skipped the succinct liner-note eulogies. The one moment on Sketches that makes a blatant lunge for the heartstrings is, not surprisingly, the closer -- a version of the folk classic "Satisfied Mind" that Buckley recorded for a radio show back in 1992. The wistful tones in which the then-26-year-old singer swaddled this hymnlike ditty about dying happy suggest that he'd already been there; it's that aching irony that's meant to resonate in the coda of Buckley's final work, and it stands out garishly, like a neon geranium in a pot of funeral lilies. Still, on a final album that manages to resist romanticizing its subject, this last contrivance is easy enough to forgive.
-- Andi Zeisler
With the recent crossover success of "Free," a breezy four-to-the-floor housey anthem, early '90s dance-music diva Ultra Nate accomplished a rare feat: She regained a spot in the pop-culture mainstream. Her contemporaries, singers like Jocelyn Brown and Martha Wash, have attempted comebacks but only made it among the dance music demimonde. Now, Nate is trying something even more ambitious: She wants to prove again that pre-electronica dance music can move the mind as well as it moves the body.
Nate was succeeding in this quest when her career fell off in 1994. Although defined by lofty ambition, it began almost by accident. In the late '80s, she was a premed student at Morgan State University and danced regularly at a Baltimore nightclub. There, the Basement Boys -- producers of Crystal Waters' early hits -- asked her to sing for them. She had sung in church and decided to give it a try. The collaboration created "It's Over Now," a club hit that led to a deal with Warner Bros. Her first recording, Blue Notes in the Basement, was a canny collection of dance-pop that boosted "Rejoicing" and "It Is Love" onto the pop charts. On 1993's One Woman's Insanity she wrote more and developed a theme about a woman's attempt to maintain identity and prerogative in a corporate world. The clueless label botched the marketing and, after the record stiffed, dropped her. Nate's work disappeared from the mainstream, but she continued to work, mostly with British producers. She signed with the dance indie Strictly Rhythm and began working a single with plans for an album to follow.
The radio and soundtrack (I Know What You Did Last Summer) success of "Free" may have a desultory effect on Situation Critical. The record strains to maintain the momentum of the single, and as a result its dynamics are off. The album races out of the box blaring, one 115 bpm song after another, before settling into a smoother mix of varied tempos and grooves. The songs themselves are well-crafted with good hooks, but they feel better-suited for a Walkman at the gym than a home stereo. Despite her church background, Nate's voice lacks the gospel thunder of Wash or Brown, but she makes up for it with nuance and subtlety; she's vehement without hysterics on uptempo numbers like "A New Kind of Medicine," and her technique deepens slower tunes like "It's Crying Time." Unfortunately, her songs lack the depth of her last recording. The title refers to the state of the union; her lyrics encourage progressive thinking, but they don't get much beyond idle slogans. Nate has had two goals, personal and artistic. Although Situation Critical is an engaging listen, it only accomplishes the former.
-- Martin Johnson