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MORE THAN MOUTH : Slightly Humbler, Terence Trent D'Arby Grows Up Enough to Be Back on the Road

July 01, 1993|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

Terence Trent D'Arby was born 20 years too late.

If he had come along in 1967 instead of 1987, he would have been recognized as one of the great male soul singers, part of an honor roll that includes Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Al Green and James Brown.

As it is, he lives in their shadow and under their influence. But it takes a glorious talent to stand as a legitimate heir to those hall-of-famers. Factor in D'Arby's instrumental ability (on some of his album tracks, he does the one-man-studio-band trick, a la Prince, another of his influences) and his kinetic onstage dancing (which won over an initially indifferent crowd at the recent KROQ concert at Irvine Meadows), and you have a rock-soul performer limited only by his ability to write songs that will last. On his three albums, D'Arby, 31, has been good but so far not remarkable.

Being born two decades earlier also would have enabled D'Arby to arrive at a time when there were no narrow radio formats and artificially imposed barriers boxing off one pop style from another. This would have been of considerable value to a performer whose new album, "Symphony Or Damn," starts with a grinding rocker, "She Kissed Me," and ends with "Let Her Down Easy," a sweet, soft pop ballad that wouldn't have sounded out of place on a Cat Stevens album.

In between, D'Arby's sprawling but diverting 16-song opus incorporates everything from a country-tinged waltz to well-employed hip-hop rhythmic strokes to a track in which a whooshing studio-overdub tribute to the Beatles and Queen flows into "Frankie & Johnny," a soul number that pays respects to two varieties of Memphis R&B: gritty Otis Redding and creamy Al Green. Then there's "Turn the Page," which melds a tough funk groove to strains that recall Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone." The Dylan appropriation is appropriate. D'Arby's song can be taken as a sequel to Dylan's classic, since it portrays a woman (who, as in "Like a Rolling Stone," may be an alter-ego for the singer himself) who has lived the glitzy life only to take a fall and find it empty.

The son of a preacher, D'Arby grew up singing in church. He joined a funk band while serving in the Army in Germany, moving to England after his hitch.

When he arrived with his first album, "Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D'Arby" in 1987, he, for one, was convinced that he belonged among the peerage of pop greats, and he didn't mind saying so. In his first round of interviews with the British music press, D'Arby proclaimed himself "a genius" and claimed that his record was not only "the most brilliant debut album from any artist this decade," but a greater achievement than "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

He made himself a very hard guy to like--which didn't stop "Hardline" from selling more than 8 million copies worldwide, according to D'Arby's record company, Columbia, and generating a No. 1 U.S. single, "Wishing Well."

When the whirlwind was over, D'Arby must have sat down, read his clippings and decided he didn't much like the fellow in them.

"I used to rather be dead than humble, but now I'd rather be dead than proud," he sang on "You Will Pay Tomorrow," a song from his second album, 1989's "Neither Fish Nor Flesh."

The song's refrain, "You will pay tomorrow for what you do today," was prophetic: Nobody loves a braggart, and D'Arby paid for his extravagant claims for "Hardline" when "Fish" went belly-up on the charts. It was, to be fair, a harder sell than "Hardline," which was crafted to have immediate pop appeal. Rather than copy the first album's formula, D'Arby branched out with a more experimental approach that included delicate string arrangements, a cappella vocal sections, more introversion and no obvious singles. He didn't help matters by refusing to tour.

With "Symphony Or Damn," D'Arby, now relocated to Los Angeles, made an inviting, high-energy record without sacrificing his integrity. "Symphony" is missing the social commentary that dotted his first two albums, but it offers a mature, thoughtful look at characters stumbling through the minefield of love and lust. It's not as thematically unified an album as D'Arby would imply in his division of the 16 tracks into "Part One--Confrontation" and "Part II--Reconciliation." But there is a vague thematic progression as D'Arby moves from accounts of obsessive affairs with alluring but deeply flawed women ("She Kissed Me," "Castilian Blue") to closing songs about the need to see clearly and deal honestly in matters of the libido and the heart.

D'Arby's pretentious streak comes out in the needlessly arch language he sometimes uses, and in his penchant for self-important album subtitles ("Neither Fish Nor Flesh" was dubbed "A Soundtrack of Love, Faith, Hope & Destruction," while the new one, D'Arby informs us, is devoted to "Exploring the Tension Inside the Sweetness"). But D'Arby also can be the model of simplicity (the lovely ballad, "Delicate"), and playfulness ("Penelope Please," a bouncy pop ditty in the manner of Prince's "Raspberry Beret").

So far, "Symphony Or Damn" (which was released in May) hasn't been a hot seller. Perhaps D'Arby's first tour since 1988, including a show Wednesday at the Coach House, will change that. If his album doesn't reach the many pop fans who would surely enjoy it, then "Damn," indeed.

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