**** BRIGHT EYES
The new album from indie-rock wunderkind Conor Oberst (due in stores Tuesday) comes complete with a subtitle, "Or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground." Normally, this kind of thing--not to mention a 73-minute running time and interludes of dialogue and ambient sound--would be a red flag signaling pretension and self-indulgence.
But Oberst pulls off everything in this sprawling, bravura work with ease and command, avoiding the pitfalls that sometimes claimed artists whom "Lifted" might bring to mind, including Billy Corgan and Ryan Adams.
Oberst is the star of the increasingly prominent Omaha rock scene, and "Lifted" reflects a Great Plains mentality in the way it spreads unimpeded, taking as much time and as many words as it needs to tell its story. This picaresque journey of discovery through an internal landscape includes existential contemplations, skeptical confrontations with theological issues, and insistent testimony on the ability of music to lead one from the wilderness.
It's told in terms both abstract and down to earth, narrative and confessional. Whether he's presenting himself as a solo troubadour singing with face-to-face intimacy or an ambitious orchestrator crafting environments reminiscent of "Pet Sounds" Beach Boys, early Cure or Gram Parsons country-rock, Oberst refuses to be ignored.
Oberst, just 20, has already put out one of the year's best albums, February's "Read Music/Speak Spanish" by his side group, Desaparecidos. This might be the strongest single-year double punch since David Bowie released "Low" and "Heroes" in 1977.
*** 1/2 SLUM VILLAGE
"Trinity: Past, Present and Future"
With its critically lauded major-label debut, 2000's "Fantastic Vol. 2," Detroit's Slum Village was widely decreed the torchbearer of progressive hip-hop. This follow-up (in stores Tuesday) reaffirms that position. Although erstwhile group member and acclaimed producer Jay Dee contributes only three of the album's 23 tracks, Slum Village still manages to create the type of pluralistic music that's notably absent from mainstream hip-hop.
"Trinity" contains mellifluous, R&B-like; grooves ("Tainted," "La La"), mid-tempo ditties ("What Is This"), old-school hip-hop exuberance ("All-Ta-Ment," "Unisex") and '80s dance music ("Disco" and "80s Skit," featuring that decade's club staple RJ's Latest Arrival), not to mention African drums on the hyperactive "Get Live."
The three members' lyrics are just as diverse. T3 posits his rhymes on hard-core gangsta posturing; Baatin, the thought-provoking member with a carefree, nasal style, breaks into unintelligible jabberwocky, and newcomer Elzhi emerges as a rhymer's rhymer concerned with clever wordplay.
The group manages to bring together these disparate musical and vocal tendencies, without coming off as forced or contrived, through the album's unifying theme: love in ethereal and carnal forms, and an undying disdain for stagnancy in popular music.
*** JAMES TAYLOR
Had this album shown up a year ago, it would have been a respectable if not especially scintillating addition to the veteran singer-songwriter's folk-rock canon. But in this post-Sept. 11 age of global uncertainty, his music offers a particularly reassuring emotional salve, much as it did three decades back when he arrived at the height of the Vietnam War.
The key songs on "October Road" (in stores Tuesday) make a gentle plea to put basic humanity above politics, a tack that can make a musician seem naive about the world's grim realities. But Taylor lays out his message in terms Gandhi himself might have endorsed in "Belfast to Boston," another take on the kind of questions Bob Dylan raised in "Blowin' in the Wind." And where his vignettes of family life might have seemed trivial not so long ago, now they seem relevant.
Taylor will never be the funkmeister he once again tries to be in "Raised Up Family," but his exquisitely comforting version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" might even put Scrooge in a forgiving mood.
*** Marianne Faithfull, "Kissin' Time," Virgin/Hut. The veteran rock chanteuse stays contemporary by collaborating with such modern popsters as Beck, Billy Corgan and Eurhythmics' Dave Stewart. All imprint their sonic trademarks, but "Kissin' Time" (in stores Tuesday) is unquestionably Faithfull's show. Her smoky voice shows some fissures but proves surprisingly malleable, and the only real sour note is the maudlin "Song for Nico." She bluntly dissects her own image on the wry "Sliding Through Life on Charm," while such tracks as the baroque love song "Like Being Born" and the Corgan-penned "Wherever I Go" strike compelling notes of passion and obsession.
*** Snoop Dogg Presents ... Doggy Style All Stars, "Welcome to Tha House Vol. 1," Doggy Style/MCA. Snoop Dogg has been involved in more projects than a municipal housing authority in the last several years. The Long Beach rapper-actor-entrepreneur's latest endeavor (due Tuesday), a crushing compilation highlighting the artists on his fledgling vanity label, hits with an equal balance of gangster funk and stirring soul. Longtime allies Soopafly, Mr. Kane and Daz display veteran street-rap polish alongside Snoop, while promising singer LaToiya Williams emerges as a sultry siren.
*** Victoria Williams, "Sings Some Ol' Songs," Dualtone. The acclaimed songwriter dabbled with a few favorite standards on 2000's "Water to Drink," and now the singer with the distinctively high-pitched, whispery voice offers her first collection entirely composed of material she didn't write. An acquired taste to some, her vocals have always felt both old-fashioned and timeless, and here that effect breathes quirky life into such hoary numbers as "Moon River." Although the sentiments of such songs as "And Roses and Roses" sound overly quaint, her band's varied, clever musical treatments keep things from sounding mawkish or dated.
*** 1/2 Eliades Ochoa, "Estoy Como Nunca," Higher Octave. Ochoa's third and best solo album finds him liberated from the shadow of his Buena Vista Social Club past. As a result, we get to enjoy the troubadour's own, indelible take on the earthy pleasures of traditional son. Highlights include a wistful, instrumental version of Lecuona's classic "Siboney," as well as an appropriately bitter version of "Sus Ojos Se Cerraron," a vintage tango popularized by Carlos Gardel.
** 1/2 Mary Lee's Corvette, "Blood on the Tracks," Bar/None. If not on par with Liz Phair's "answer" to the Rolling Stones with her "Exile in Guyville," New York singer-songwriter Mary Lee Kortes and her band's complete, largely faithful, live take on Bob Dylan's 1975 album (due Tuesday) offers intriguing spins simply by featuring a woman's voice. "You're a Big Girl Now," for example, substitutes tenderness for Dylan's sneer. Only a brief, cartoonish Dylan imitation by an audience member brought on stage mars an otherwise worthy exercise.
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.