POP MUSIC REVIEW : Why Nova, Material Didn't Mix

The young woman on the Roxy stage Tuesday sang lyrics that detailed episodes of abuse, betrayal and victimization. Her hands twisted and turned as if gripped by the music, her voice yelped with emotion, and her band mounted an aggressive rock attack.

A surprise club appearance by Alanis Morissette? No, it was Heather Nova, a young performer who at her best, came off as Alanis Lite.

Nova's themes are close to the bone, and she presents them with confessional candor. But her pure, high voice lacks the range and intensity to make her tales compelling, and her atmospheric rock was pretty generic on stage, although the cello in the mix gave the textures a distinctive edge.

Nova--whose debut album, "Oyster," has earned some airplay on "adult alternative" radio--found some focus and footing late in the set when she dedicated "Island," about an abusive relationship, to Nicole Simpson, but for the most part she failed to assert a forceful presence.

Second-billed Ben Folds Five faces something of the opposite challenge--containing its exuberance and cleverness so it doesn't go over the top. The trio from Chapel Hill, N.C., easily transcends its identifying gimmick--an anomalous bass-drums-piano lineup, with a baby grand they cart around the nation--with a seemingly bottomless musicality.

Bringing dynamics more associated with Elton John and the Beach Boys to an underground rock sensibility, pianist-singer Ben Folds and his rhythm section ranged from novelty narratives to touching introspection--all punctuated by Folds' physical aggression and the threesome's good spirits and mutual empathy--qualities that the headliner, though in a very different emotional place, could use as well.

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