By David Browne
Updated April 02, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST
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Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida

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  • Music
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If any pop star was destined to write a Broadway musical, it probably wasn’t Paul Simon. His score for last year’s calamitous The Capeman was typical Simon — textured, esoteric, and very introspective. You didn’t leave the theater humming so much as scratching your chin. Elton John has no such qualms about giving a theatrical audience exactly what it wants, at least judging by Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida, an album of select songs from the duo’s latest Disney-funded musical.

Aida the stage spectacle, which premiered to decidedly mixed reviews in Atlanta last October (and is reportedly set to lumber onto Broadway in 2000), featured a huge, spinning pyramid and numerous dancing Egyptian slaves. Aida the album makes a spectacle of itself too. Rather than use the show’s original cast, John has called upon old cronies (Sting, Tina Turner, James Taylor) and trendy new talents (Spice Girls, Dru Hill, LeAnn Rimes, Shania Twain) to sing most of the songs, making the album a pop-chart-designed event. What, they couldn’t make room for the Backstreet Boys and Brandy?

Aida shares a title and plot with Giuseppe Verdi’s 1871 opera; it’s an old-fashioned, wrong-side-of-the-Nile story about the ill-fated romance between Egyptian general Radames and a Nubian slave girl, Aida. Yet the songs that John’s odd lot of singers are called upon to perform aren’t at all operatic. Nor are they steeped in rock (a la the Great White Way production of the Who’s Tommy) or a savvy ethnomusicology class (The Capeman). Rather, John and Rice have aimed for something much more traditional — an old-fashioned family musical, complete with showstoppers and belted-to-the-chandelier set pieces.

On those slim terms, Aida succeeds in much the same way the duo’s slick score for The Lion King did. The bulk of the album is given over to unrequited-love ballads, each aiming to be to Aida what ”Memory” is to Cats. ”Written in the Stars,” featuring John and Rimes, and ”Elaborate Lives,” sung by cast member Heather Headley, are two obvious such moments, both grandiose heart-tuggers with generic-sentiment lyrics and hooks as annoyingly ingratiating as those of, coincidentally, Rimes’ hit ”How Do I Live.” Other ballads are gussied up in sundry ways: as R&B marshmallows (Kelly Price’s ”The Gods Love Nubia,” John and Janet Jackson’s ”I Know the Truth”) or pyramid-cabaret pop (Turner’s ”Easy as Life”), while James Taylor has seen pharaohs and he’s seen rain in the melancholy, folksy ”How I Know You.” John, Rice, and their huge cast occasionally alter the pace, via the anemic reggae of ”Another Pyramid” (enunciated by Sting) and the ersatz Motown of the obvious crowd-pleaser, ”My Strongest Suit” (chirped by the Spice Girls as Amneris, Radames’ shallow fiancee).

For pop fans, the good news about Aida is that it doesn’t play like a cast recording; there’s no between-song dialogue, for instance. It isn’t so much a collection of Broadway tunes as it is a festival of soft rock — Lite-FM-stock — albeit with predominantly banal melodies and move-the-narrative-along lyrics that are appropriate for musicals but muck up non-show tunes. (Poor Price has to sing about ”the fall of Nubia, ephemeral and fleeting.”) When the most hummable refrain is ”Overwear, underwear, anytime, anywhere,” from the Spice Girls’ number, you know you’re in trouble.

Occasionally there are flashes of the old Elton. ”Like Father Like Son,” performed by Lenny Kravitz, hints at the good-natured crankiness of John’s ’70s rockers, while the chanted hook of the otherwise unmemorable ”A Step Too Far” makes you feel as if it’s still 1975. But Aida represents the ultimate mainstreaming of John. He’s spent his career balancing his rock and schlock sides, yet like a musical Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the mushy part has taken over. Now that he’s a knight of the British order, John seems to want to make music exclusively to match his lofty, upper-crust title, and the middlebrow, Andrew Lloyd Webber-with-a-hair weave moves of Aida are the culmination of his previous incursions into that area. Aida could have used a little of John’s old feisty energy and feather-boa-costumed tackiness, but those days are gone. Aida makes you wish you’d heard more surly Elton than Sir Elton. C

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Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida

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