* * *
Some people think folk music is more honest than other forms, but it's also rich territory for alter egos. Bob Dylan called himself Blind Boy Grunt to continue making folk recordings as he was heading toward pop stardom; his early mentor, the Brooklyn-born Elliott Adnopoz, became a Wild Westerner as Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Tom Morello's folk persona, the Nightwatchman, is more superhero than cowboy or bluesman, but that's appropriate for a guy best known for working miracles with an effects pedal.
Morello debuted the Nightwatchman as an acoustic project, but on this second release he's decided to beef up the sound. Instead of the rougher edge cultivated for the 2007 debut, "One Man Revolution," Morello and producer Brendan O'Brien flesh out this set as rootsy rock.
The title track employs some Danny Federici-style keyboards, signaling some Bruce Springsteen love. Steve Earle, John Mellencamp and the Irish American group Black 47 are also touchstones.
By going for a band feel instead of the lone troubadour's stance, Morello can have more fun with his polemics. The Celtic-flavored "Saint Isabelle" and "The Iron Wheel" (with Shooter Jennings adding some drawl) should inspire some beer-sloshing along with any marching, while "Lazarus on Down" is a bit of spooky introspection aided by Serj Tankian's dramatic wail. The well-rounded production serves lyrics that are often more poetic than topical, even when addressing crises such as Hurricane Katrina.
The enriched production helps with the Nightwatchman's own dose of Kryptonite -- Morello's baritone, which is fairly off-putting at first. Recalling Nick Cave (minus the growl) or Jurassic 5 rapper Chali 2na (minus the flow), Morello's singing could inspire chuckles rather than revolution. But on "The Fabled City," he and O'Brien have dressed it up enough to make it seem almost super at times.
The message is definitely mixed
Kellie Pickler "Kellie Pickler" (19/BNA)
* * ½
One of the increasingly fascinating sidelights of the " American Idol" phenomenon is seeing what each season's top finishers do after their debut albums have come and gone.
Some have quickly faded from memory ( Justin Guarini, Diana DeGarmo), several have gone to Broadway and movies ( Clay Aiken, Fantasia Barrino, Jennifer Hudson), some have struggled to assert post-"Idol" artistry ( Kelly Clarkson) and at least one has risen to greater heights than she achieved immediately after winning her "Idol" crown ( Carrie Underwood).
Pickler stretches out her sophomore effort (in stores today), co-writing half of the album's 10 songs and, she says in the accompanying press materials, injecting more input into the song selection and arrangements than she had on 2006's "Small Town Girl."
There are individual moments of accomplishment, but the album is like a Whitman Sampler, with a sweet tidbit for listeners in pretty much any stage of a romantic relationship, leading to a fairly scattered emotional palette.
The prevailing attitude is "Don't get mad, get even" with guys who bail out or girls who steal guys -- though she stops a bit short of the flat-out lust for revenge in Underwood's "Before He Cheats" or Miranda Lambert's "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend."
The standout is "Best Days of Your Life," which she wrote with 18-year-old Taylor Swift, who sings harmonies too, taunting an ex about how he'll regret leaving soon enough. "I'm Your Woman" is pure Shania, and "One Last Time" is a farewell that yearns to be Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times" when it grows up.
The biggest puzzler is "Don't You Know You're Beautiful," another of those too-common pop culture messages of empowerment aimed at women: "You're wishing you had designer jeans / Like the ones you see in magazines. . . . But your worth ain't on the outside / It comes from within."
Nice words, but they're sandwiched in between a handful of glamour-model photos of Pickler in a series of body-hugging designer outfits. Is anybody out there paying attention?