Except for the Windham Hill pianist, each of this month's acts openly acknowledges Christ, suggesting that contracts with major labels or their subsidiaries are not necessarily pacts with the devil. Still, the Windham Hill pianist is outselling the rest, suggesting that not even a wake-up call as bracing as Ricky Skaggs's emergence as the "Anti-Garth" can compete with lullabies among our sleepy populace.
Jim Brickman: Picture This (Windham Hill). Who says you can't judge a disc by its cover? From the neatly cropped hair and relaxed gaze to the bare feet and immaculate white clothing, Jim Brickman's cover pose speaks volumes about his music. At his fingertips the piano becomes an aeolian harp, responding to the zephyrs of the zeitgeist with music that sounds a lot like Barry Manilow's without orchestras and George Winston's without the damper pedal. As music, in other words, dull. As evidence for the argument against the inevitability of human progress, however, not bad.
Phil Keaggy: Acoustic Sketches (Sparrow). Finally, years after even his most ardent fans have quit demanding one, Phil Keaggy delivers an all-acoustic instrumental album and demonstrates the extent to which lyrics, electricity, and other market-driven concessions have heretofore obscured his gifts. Listeners impatient with improvisation should note that fewer than half these "sketches" exceed three minutes. Better yet, none of them succumbs to the languor of the New Age folk or bistro jazz with which they flirt.
Salt N' Pepa: Brand New (London/Red Ant). If these rap gals really have found Christ-a rumor their liner-note testimonies and "Hold On" (featuring Kirk Franklin) seem to confirm-then here's hoping "Say Ooh" represents their final attempt at recorded seduction, and the booklet photos their final appearance in Wonderbras. All the same, at least six of these 13 songs are catchy and fun. And one should never look an obscenity-free rap album in the mouth.
Sixteen Horsepower: Low Estate (A&M). Like their kindred spirits in Vigilantes of Love, these visionary Christians shore up their prophetic utterances with ecstatic, folk-based rock 'n' roll. Unlike VOL's Jim Mallonnee, however, David Eugene Edwards goes in for ecstatic singing, too. In other words, whereas Mr. Mallonnee writes rock 'n' roll the way Flannery O'Connor might've, Mr. Edwards performs rock 'n' roll the way a Flannery O'Connor character might've. (Those who consider references to Flannery O'Connor arcane will probably consider this music arcane as well.)
Ricky Skaggs: Life Is a Journey (Atlantic). Last time he was so intent on reconnecting with his once-huge audience that he ended up straddling the very fence he swung for. This time he shortens his swing and goes 10 for 10. Last time he was so intent on connecting with family-values clichés that he stooped to "Cat's in the Cradle." This time he delivers with an intimacy at odds with football stadiums. Last time there was no epiphany. This time he follows Leon Payne's "The Selfishness in Man" with the apocalyptic "Voices Singing" and comes up with Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, country-bluegrass style.