**** KIRSTY MacCOLL "Kite" Charisma : Albums rated on a scale of one star (poor) to five (a classic).

Nine years after her first solo album, the daughter of the late Irish folk giant Ewan MacColl, wife of big-time producer Steve Lillywhite (who did the honors here) and session vocalist extraordinaire returns with what can only be described as a contemporary folk-rock record, reminiscent of what the Kinks or the Smiths would sound like if they were fronted by a real woman.

That's scarcely an idol comparison, either--earwitness MacColl's offhandedly breathtaking versions of the former's "Days" and the latter's "You Just Haven't Earned It Yet, Baby." More important, these and a third (McGarrigles) non-original aren't even the best bits.

Propelled by indelible, whispering, bell-like melodies and anything-but-textbook guitar textures from the likes of one-time Pretender Robbie McIntosh and ex-Smiths star Johnny Marr, MacColl's own tunes are marked by a gimlet-eyed sense of detail: "Innocence," "Fifteen Minutes," "Free World," "Don't Come the Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim!" and "What Do Pretty Girls Do?"--there's not a cliched moment in the lot.

What's more, MacColl chases these pints of shimmering sarcasm with double shots of tough love and compassion ("No Victims," "Mother's Ruin," "You and Me Baby," "End of a Perfect Day"). She sings all the harmonies, too. So what's a woman gotta do to get noticed, shave her head?

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