After the edgier Play, an album loaded with feisty sparring partners, it's disappointing to hear guitarist Mike Stern wander around in a limp musical setting-but hey, at least its not the same old limp musical setting. With significant contributions from bassist/vocalist Richard Bona and keyboardist/producer Jim Beard, Stern ventures into the world-music-fusion thing on Voices. As the title suggests, Stern centers his tunes on singable melodies and cordons off plenty of room for vocalists.
On Voices, Stern and company have managed a rather seamless conjoining of African musics and Stern's own solid fusion sound. Nothing sounds forced. Nothing sounds rickety at all, in fact, which leads to another problem. The music sounds downright defanged. Stern focuses much of his time trying to sound pretty and unthreatening, which usually entails spinning out unison lines with Bona's many-times overdubbed wordless vocals or circling the vocal-carried melodies with chorus after chorus of guitar fanfare. (Bona is featured on the first two songs, "One World" and "The River"; Elisabeth Kontomanou and Philip Hamilton take over vocal duties elsewhere.) Stern's carefully mannered solos try to substitute a marginally gritty tone, the occasional bluesy phrase and quick fingering for grit or excitement. The rest of the group does their best to stay out of the way.
Michael Brecker makes a few guest appearances, but even his chesty solos hardly disrupt the easy flow of this music. Overall, it sounds as though Stern and company worked just as hard smoothing out every last rough edge as they did in making Stern sound convincing in this new context. In the end, it's an album that just as easy to forget as it is to admire.