MANCHESTER HOUSE MERCHANTS M People have been full-fledged stars in England since 1993 but remain cult figures here despite pop instincts uncommon in the genre. Their stateside debut, 1994's smart, songful Elegant Slumming remains a strong candidate for the best house album of the Nineties, but after a pair of tame followups and a U.K.-only best-of collection, most American fans assumed the band was through.
Which makes the joys of Testify such an exquisite lift--lame ballads and all. Although nothing here has the immediate snap of Slumming's best moments, the quartet is still honing its craft while grounding its songs in the soulful crooning of Heather Small. True, five of the thirteen cuts have appeared on previous albums (all but one, to the group's credit, are remixed here). But every track--even (yecch) the cover of the Doobie Brothers' "What a Fool Believes"--somehow fits into place. With a voice richer than chocolate mousse, Small never plays diva; she just says her piece and gets out, but not before lavishing efficient care on every corny lyric ("You're a sight for sore eyes," "Search for the hero inside yourself," etc.). Anyone who can make that formula work deserves the world, even if it takes a relit Doobies number to nab it.