But even the most ardent Kiwi-pop fans would have trouble with the overwrought song lyrics and brittle melodies littered on the Verlaines' latest disc.

Singer-songwriter Grame Downes has always dreamed with a high-minded muse, but most of the intended symbolism on songs like "Blanket Over the Sky" and "Cathedrals Under the Sea" seems trapped by excess verbiage. And there's little in the way of hooks to help pull the tunes up for air.

The Verlaines are better than this.--Ted Simons

Prince
The Most Beautiful Girl in the World
(NPG Records)

Prince threatened early retirement yet again last year, so why did he bother releasing bottom-drawer stuff like this? He should've surprised us all for once and recorded the Charlie Rich song of the same name. But no, our (symbol) seems bent on releasing only what he writes, and everything he writes. Everything!

Once upon a time, Prince maintained some mystique, but premiäring this new song on the Miss America pageant seems like a desperate bid for attention. Since Warner Bros. is dismantling Paisley Park, this is only available by dialing his 1-800-NEW-FUNK number. Judy the Pop Life operator will be standing by to take your order, but be warned. The deluxe-packaged single is just an oversize greeting card with a two-song CD shoved inside. The price? $11.99. Shame on U, Prince!--Serene Dominic

Various Artists
The Essential Gospel Sampler
(Columbia/Legacy)

When they named it "Essential," they weren't kidding, and it is, in more ways than one: Not only will this stuff convince you of the existence of a higher power (assuming you feel it's essential that you go to heaven), but this is truly a must-have helping of inspirational music from the late Forties through the mid-Sixties.

And if you think religious music is some staid, lifeless thing, you are sorely wrong, brother. This is not the soundtrack of a Methodist picnic.

To make it plain, artists such as Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, Sam Cook and the Wicked Wilson Pickett all began their vocal careers under a roof with a cross on it; the same spirit that imbues the great soul recordings is found here in equal--if not greater--strength. Only the words are different. Witness Marion Williams' testifying in "What Could I Do," a rollicking R&B hymn, complete with Hammond B3 organ burning in the background. The Golden Gate Quartet gives a tight, smoky reading of "Hush!" that'll bring to mind the Mills Brothers, and the great Mahalia Jackson leads a simple piano accompaniment in "How I Got Over," recorded live in Sweden. Her voice is bluesy, raw and filled with absolute holy attitude. But that is what this collection is all about, and--from the Staple Singers, Paul Robeson, and the Dixie Hummingbirds, to name but a few--you couldn't pray for more.--Peter Gilstrap

David Lee Roth
Your Filthy Little Mouth
(Reprise)

Ten years after Van Halen replaced him with Hagar the Horrible, Dave's still the life of the party. If he'd never worn spandex or starred in the "Hot for Teacher" video, critics might realize that Roth is sometimes capable of almost Westerbergian couplets: "Before you make it, it's all hit or miss/After you make it, it's 'take a hit of this.'" More often than not, however, you'd think he swiped his lines off of jokey cocktail napkins. But then what do you expect from Diamond Dave, Stinglike introspection? Though he almost looks like the balding, blond ex-Policeman, check out the song "Experience" to hear Roth impart his worldly wisdom: "I'd love to talk philosophy, but I gotta take a piss." What a whiz!--Serene Dominic

Sam Phillips
Martinis & Bikinis
(Virgin)

Phillips and husband/producer T-Bone Burnette tastefully decorate this fine collection with British psychedelic flourishes (harpsichords, backward guitars, cellos, Munchkin background vocals, etc.). Though the music recalls the Summer of Love, the lyrics paint a bleak winter of discontent. Phillips draws parallels between the bedroom and the boardroom, continually putting intimate relationships into contractual, businesslike terms. And she rarely comes out on top in the hostile takeovers.

But she doesn't take it all lying down, and gets in her best jabs on the confrontational "Baby I Can't Please You" (You say love when you mean control"). She also has the smarts to close the set with "Gimme Some Truth," a Lennon anthem which might prove to be more useful than "All You Need Is Love" ever was.--Serene Dominic

M-3
M-3
(New Alliance)

Roger Miller made some noxious noise in his prime. He waxed anarchic with the band Mission of Burma back in the postpunk early Eighties, then later toned it down and went instrumental with the chaotically minimalist Birdsongs of the Mesozoic. Miller's also been involved in numerous solo projects, most of which are essentially hybrids of his earlier machinations.

M-3, with brothers Ben and Larry Miller, is the latest Roger Miller venture. It's a collaborative collection of industrial doodlings, highlighted by "Lunge and Reel," a kind of spastic, postmodern square dance. The rest of the CD grinds closer to ambient machine-shop rattle with shards of rhythm bouncing off the sparks. Mildly accessible, considering the genre.--Ted Simons

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