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Many Happy Returns to Form

***1/2

BADLY DRAWN BOY

“About a Boy”

ARTISTdirect Records/

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XL Recordings

Damon Gough nearly ruined the goodwill and momentum generated by his stylish 2000 album debut, “The Hour of Bewilderbeast,” with a subsequent series of erratic, often exhausting live shows.

But the Englishman should regain our attention and respect with this soundtrack collection (due in stores Tuesday), which recaptures the understated charm and gentle insights of the first album--and then some.

Gough, who calls himself Badly Drawn Boy after a British cartoon strip, didn’t just rummage through his record collection to find tracks that reflect the mood of the film--often the norm these days when putting together soundtracks.

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He wrote nine songs and assorted instrumental passages for the film, which is based on a novel by “High Fidelity” author (and sometime New Yorker pop critic) Nick Hornby.

The music is likely to remind you of the winsome strains of Elliott Smith and the folk-period Paul Simon, but the best of these tunes--including the sweet optimism of “Something to Talk About” and the unshakable beauty of “Donna and Blitzen"--confirm that Gough is a singer-songwriter of the top level.

Although not billed as a follow-up to “Bewilderbeast” (that album is due later in the year), “About a Boy” has a warm, personal edge that qualifies it as such. A lovely work.

--Robert Hilburn

****

ELVIS COSTELLO

“When I Was Cruel”

Island Def Jam

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So the Mercurial One had enough of ballads and Burt Bacharach, and decided to get back to his rockin'-er roots with the help of longtime collaborators Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas. Let the rejoicing commence, because such selections as the kinetic “Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s a Doll Revolution)” make this stripped-to-essentials collection (due Tuesday) an even more proper throwback to Costello’s late-'70s literate punk-new wave than 1994’s “Brutal Youth” was.

On his Web site, he himself notes the preponderance of distorted tremolo guitar, which pulses darkly through the shambling, Dylan-esque title track and other numbers. But you can’t entirely go home again, and, really, who would want him to? All of Costello’s crooning years have honed his voice, making it more confident and less strained, so agile that it has more punch than ever.

And boy, does the ever-clever wordplay-meister punch. He turns history and music ‘round together in the thrashy-melodic “45,” whispers a wry tale of mutual deception on “Spooky Girlfriend” and vividly describes bittersweet on the airy “Tart.” All this brings back flashes of yesteryear, but our 21st century Elvis no longer explodes with youthful rage. Rather, he slow-burns, muting fury with amusement.

Sure, the angry buzz of “Daddy Can I Turn This?” cuts, but it’s the ballad “Alibi” that drips with magnificent disdain and reproach for how we rationalize our transgressions. As fine as the music is, it’s Costello’s voice, running breathlessly up and down the scale, that gets the message across.

--Natalie Nichols

***1/2

CEE-LO

“Cee-Lo Green and

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His Perfect Imperfections”

Arista

As a member of Atlanta’s Goodie Mob and the larger Dungeon Family hip-hop conglomerate (which includes hip-hop visionaries OutKast), Cee-Lo has always included gospel, rock, rap and funk sensibilities in his work. After venturing beyond the hip-hop world by appearing on Santana’s blockbuster album “Supernatural,” the genre-bender emerges with a knockout collection of his own.

In the album (due Tuesday), Cee-Lo reaches out to rap fans (“Big Ole Words [Damn]”), funk followers (the single “Closet Freak”) and rock aficionados (“Live [Right Now]”) in consecutive cuts, showing his artistic range. His jazz (“Base Head Jazz”) and folk (“Country Love,” with Blues Traveler’s John Popper on harmonica) offerings add more styles to Cee-Lo’s potpourri.

Cee-Lo’s clever lyrics about life’s idiosyncrasies, his love for music and the beauty of relationships breathe even more life into this musically rich album. In “Young Man (Sierra’s Song),” Cee-Lo explains how the practice of referring to women in derogatory terms can shoot ripples of pain through generations. This type of commentary, insightful but never preachy, makes Cee-Lo a welcome voice.

--Soren Baker

**

ASHANTI

“Ashanti”

Murder Inc./Def Jam

The next queen of hip-hop soul? Ashanti Douglas’ debut album may have topped the national sales chart, but don’t be too quick to depose Mary J. Blige. Sure, the 21-year-old singer-dancer-actress has pricked up ears as the featured vocalist on Ja Rule’s No. 1 hit “Always on Time” and Fat Joe’s almost equally monstrous “What’s Luv?” And her own chart-topping first single, the he’s-rotten-but-I-love-him “Foolish,” has a reasonably enjoyable, sparkly, modern soul-pop vibe.

Ashanti’s breathy, cooing vocals are well suited to the mellow mood of this collection. She co-wrote everything except the solely self-penned, extremely lightweight “Thank You.” But the subjects (breakups, booty calls and believe-in-your-dreams) and the production are strictly Cliche City. Despite the seductive intimacy of her sweet voice, “Ashanti” has nothing more substantial than that to prop up 17 tracks of essentially the same thing.

In addition, several strictly unnecessary between-track skits take a turn for the ugly with the “Fight” scene preceding “Over” (which comes complete with ominous thunderstorm sounds in the mix). Returning the favor, Ja Rule appears on “Leaving (Always on Time Part II),” which at least creates some interesting textures with strings, buzzing bass and acoustic guitar.

--N.N

In Brief

***1/2 Susana Baca, “Espiritu Vivo,” Luaka Bop. The album’s title, which means Living Spirit, could refer to the chilling events that haunted this vibrant recording, made in New York in the days immediately following Sept. 11. But it also applies to the ancient soul of Afro-Peruvian music, which takes on new life through Baca’s exquisitely enriched versions. The classic “Toro Mata” gains depth and mystery with new choruses and eerie electronic embellishments, while the celebratory “Se Me Van Los Pies” stirs up an unexpected spell like a frenetic street rumba. Although it seems self-consciously global at times, at the expense of some true criollo flavor, this work stands as a shining, progressive contribution to the genre.

--Agustin Gurza

*** Brute, “Co-Balt,” Widespread/Supercat. The members of Widespread Panic who back Vic Chesnutt in this occasional collaboration almost manage to make this most eccentric singer-songwriter sound generic. Not that mainstreaming the cult hero into John Hiatt territory is a bad career move. Besides, Chesnutt’s typically acerbic and sympathetic dispatches from the margins of society carry their usual disquieting wallop and off-the-wall originality. Chesnutt plays the Knitting Factory Hollywood on Saturday to open the club’s weeklong “Beat Fest.”

--Richard Cromelin

**1/2 Eddie Palmieri “La Perfecta II,” Concord Picante. Palmieri’s latest (due Tuesday) is partly a reprise of the pianist’s glory days fronting La Perfecta, the 1960s octet that stormed New York’s Palladium and set the stage for the salsa explosion of the 1970s. The concept caught fire when performed live recently. On record, though, it doesn’t go beyond accomplished nostalgia, captured in a sparkling recording. Six of the 11 tracks are new but predictable Latin jazz compositions. Clearly, salsa’s former enfant terrible needs to start misbehaving musically again.

--A.G.

*

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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