A Strong Crop in Fall's First Harvest

* * * 1/2 MACY GRAY "The Id" Epic

Gray showed a wonderful duality in her striking debut album, 1999's "On How Life Is," but you had to wonder whether the oddly winning mix of '70s soul-music instincts and bold, eccentric personality was part of a truly original vision or simply a fluke.

In this follow-up (due in stores Tuesday), Gray quickly disproves the fluke theory. Working with some of the same writers (and a few new ones), Gray--whose squeaky, distinctive voice is as unlikely a chart favorite as anything we've heard in ages--again offers vintage soul, rock and funk strains that are so pure they seem channeled from an earlier era.

"Sweet Baby," a duet with Erykah Badu, is a gentle, upbeat love song with the potential to soar as high on the singles chart as Gray's memorable "I Try" from the last album. For the equally appealing "Forgiveness," Gray adds a touch of country seasoning drawn from Hoyt Axton's "Never Been to Spain" as the backbone of a gently caressing tale of spiritual quest.

While the funkier, upbeat exercises are smart and snappy musically, tunes such as "Relating to a Psychopath" and "Gimme All Your Lovin' or I Will Kill You" are psychodramas in title only. They lack the dark obsessions and exotic urges of some of the unsettling songs on "On How Life Is"--so unsettling that they made you wonder about possible demons in Gray's history. Far from unnerving, "Gimme" is a good-natured feminist fantasy, something we might once have expected from Millie Jackson.

There's still some duality at work in "The Id," but mostly the album showcases the further blossoming of an artist who is every bit as gifted as the best moments of her debut suggested.

-- Robert Hilburn

* * * JAY-Z "The Blueprint" Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam

Being dissed by Mobb Deep, Nas and others may have been just what Jay-Z needed. The immensely talented Brooklyn rapper returns with a vengeance on his sixth album, displaying a sense of purpose that's been absent since his bone-crushing breakthrough, 1998's Grammy-winning "Vol. 2 ... Hard Knock Life."

On the scathing "Takeover," for example, he flows with unflinching swagger and confidence, outlining the lyrical, business and character shortcomings of his aforementioned rivals. Elsewhere, he pumps up his loyalty to the streets ("Never Change"), teams with Eminem for outrageous boasting ("Renegade") and compiles a clever narrative about a slew of gorgeous women ("Girls, Girls, Girls").

The catchy single "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" illustrates how Jay-Z, unlike most rappers, can match a superior rhyme with a universally appealing beat. Another reason for the impact of this collection is that it's a true "solo" album, in contrast to the hip-hop norm of guest-packed recordings. Jay-Z's proteges, as talented as they may be at times, are nowhere to be found, allowing the rapper enough room to flex his tremendous talent.

-- Soren Baker

* * * BABYFACE "Face 2 Face" Arista

Babyface may have a greater reputation as a record-label mogul than a master of spun-sugar R&B;, but as a performer the man's still got the touch. On his new album, Babyface's restraint and bruised vulnerability aspire to a more evolved take on romance and relationships than you'll find in the melisma-soaked pablum of his younger contemporaries.

Rather than objectify his lovers as pheromone bombs or castigate them as shrews, Babyface takes his time, lends an ear, soothes with the velvet caress of his sweet voice. He casts himself in the role of a romantic aspirant, searching for platonic love or trying to retrieve it from the rubble of a breakup.

In "There She Goes," he's "gotta show her that I want her." In "What If," a lament for a lost love, he asks, "What if we were wrong about each other?" In "Stressed Out," a frisky dance-floor funk-a-thon, he's the voice of reason: "It will happen if it's meant to be." "Face 2 Face" nicely balances classic soul arrangements with swatches of hip-hop flavor, but it's Babyface, whose pretty voice flutters and swoops like Al Green's, who holds the album in a suspended state of grace.

-- Marc Weingarten

* * 1/2 TORI AMOS "Strange Little Girls" Atlantic

Accompanying Amos' high-concept collection of takes on 12 songs written by men (in stores Tuesday) is a series of Cindy Sherman-like photographs of the eccentric singer-keyboardist as wildly different characters representing the "essences" of the female viewpoints she found in each selection. Whether blond, brunet, or redhead, garbed in shimmering gown, cop uniform or KISS jacket, each one levels the same enigmatic Tori-gaze at the camera.

Likewise, Amos doesn't always reveal what she sees, leaving the interpretation of her reinterpretations up to the listener. Themes of violence, guns and killing provide a slender common thread among such disparate tracks as Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence," Slayer's "Raining Blood" and 10cc's "I'm Not in Love," which are mostly lyrically faithful, often radically rearranged and always stamped with her distinctive vocals, by turns ethereal, plaintive and wry.

Not all the reworkings are particularly compelling or redefining, however, which makes one wonder if the overarching idea was merely a grand excuse to do a covers album. But Amos does flip Eminem's "'97 Bonnie & Clyde" to absolutely chilling effect. His lyrics drip poisonously from her hushed mouth as the cello-driven music rattles like dry bones, stripping away all catchiness to bare the twisted heart of a man who murders his ex-wife--and makes a game of dumping the body with his little daughter so he can own his child completely.

-- Natalie Nichols

* * * BEN FOLDS "Rockin' the Suburbs" Epic

Trends are mostly irrelevant to the music of Ben Folds. While his now-defunct Ben Folds Five offered some teary comic relief in the grunge '90s ("Brick"), his wise-guy piano pop is closer to the timeless Randy Newman tradition: The jokes and festive grooves barely mask stories of disappointed romance and small humiliations.

Likewise, his solo debut is tough and even taunting amid his obvious vulnerability. Now that Folds has relocated to Australia and plunged into marriage and fatherhood, the singer-songwriter is freely exploring post-adolescent themes, charting sad and inevitable life transitions in "Fred Jones Part 2." And he is unashamedly sentimental on the album-closing love song, "The Luckiest," while falling far short of the maudlin.

After the orchestral scope of the Five's "The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner" concept album in 1999, "Rockin' the Suburbs" has a refreshing, home-grown feel. Folds plays almost all the instruments himself and sounds more comfortable with a simpler brand of piano-based pop, landing somewhere between Brian Wilson and Vince Guaraldi.

Not that Folds has abandoned his bigger musical ideas. Although never as epic as Rufus Wainwright's grandest productions, he does resort to occasional strings, horns and electric guitar. Folds even manages an astonishing approximation of ex-Rage Against the Machine vocalist Zack de la Rocha on the title track. A strangely festive mix of melancholy and bliss.

-- Steve Appleford

* * * JOHN HIATT "The Tiki Bar Is Open" Vanguard

Wrestling with ghosts is a tricky business. Try to tighten your grasp and they're gone. Maybe that's why veteran singer-songwriter Hiatt moves away from his characteristically straight-to-the-point writing style here in several songs about coming to grips with specters from the past.

Doing so lets him circle his often-elusive targets--those flaws within the heart's deep recesses that make people do the inexplicable things they sometimes do to the ones they love.

Plugging in again with hard-rocking Louisiana-based backing band the Goners gives him more musical muscle for latching onto what he finds in "a place where the ghosts do the talking," as he puts it in the eerie, inward-looking "I Know a Place."

The atmospheric "I'll Never Get Over You" is made all the more haunting by Sonny Landreth's slide guitar. In the brutally confessional "Something Broken," he may not understand his actions, but he accepts responsibility for the pain he's inflicted.

Those treks through the darker sides of the soul give his nods to love realized--"Rock of Your Love" and "Hangin' Round Here"--the ring of well-earned victory. Hiatt plays Oct. 13 at Universal Amphitheatre and Oct. 18 at the Sun Theatre in Anaheim. Randy Lewis

In Brief

* * * P.O.D., "Satellite," Atlantic. A giant leap forward for the San Diego quartet, "Satellite" sharpens the emotional and spiritual edge of its platinum-selling debut, "The Fundamental Elements of Southtown," and manages to transcend the antagonistic attitude and formula beats of most rap-metal bands. Reggae, hip-hop and heavy rock grooves shimmer under passionate expressions about violence, faith and hope on melodic morsels such as "Youth of the Nation," "Without Jah Nothin" and the inspiring single "Alive."

-- Lina Lecaro

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* * 1/2 The Isley Brothers, "Eternal," DreamWorks. Look at the number of outside writers and producers it took to create this album, and it's tempting to ask: Do the Isley Brothers really need this much help? After all, original members Ronald and Ernie Isley wrote most of the group's signature hits in a career that's spanned more than 40 years. There's no questioning the expert input from R. Kelly on "Contagious," an engrossing soap opera about the bold and bodacious. But the album's other contributors sound as if they're trying to update and fix something that was never broken.

-- Connie Johnson

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* * * Long Beach Dub Allstars, "Wonders," DreamWorks. The Dub Allstars began life as a ragged group of friends and survivors, but this second album shows astonishing musical force, actually picking up on the unrealized potential of the late Sublime leader Brad Nowell. Beginning with the should-be-a-hit "Sunny Hours" (with vocals from Will I Am from the Black Eyed Peas), the band glides from reggae to pop to frantic So Cal punk, often drifting into the brotherly, laid-back groove of early War. Smooth. S.A. * * * Remy Zero, "The Golden Hum," Elektra. What the world needs now is rock, sweet rock, and Remy Zero's third album delivers the goods in grand '70s style, complete with atmospheric instrumentals and soaring, guitar-powered anthems. The Los Angeles-based quintet is not the most original of groups, but its reverence for the grandiloquence of yesteryear's rock results in music filled with drama and excitement.

-- Ernesto Lechner

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* * * Groove Armada, "Goodbye Country, Hello Nightclub," Jive/Electro. After its 1999 U.S. debut album "Vertigo," this English duo became a favorite of the tastemaker world. The Armani-cool "Goodbye Country" illustrates why. The stylish collection, which glides from the seductive rhythms and chilled rap of "Suntoucher" to the techno beats and house vocals of "Fogma" to the laid-back, down-tempo "My Friend," has a flair all its own.

-- Steve Baltin

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* * * Bill Janovitz, "Up Here," SpinArt. Fans who have pogoed with the Buffalo Tom frontman and his jouncy guitars will appreciate his folky side. Janovitz's second solo effort features poignant looks at suburban inquietude, personal loss, matrimony and fatherhood told over strummed and steel guitars and measured keyboards. His perfectly imperfect voice, paired on three songs with Fuzzy's Chris Toppin, wears like a loose-fitting, frayed sweater. Darn comfortable.

-- Kevin Bronson

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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