*** 1/2 DIXIE CHICKS, "Home", Open Wide/Columbia
The Chicks aim for music that offers a message as well as entertains, and the female country trio blends those objectives engagingly in the opening 24 seconds of its third album (due in stores Tuesday).
Before the first line of lyrics in "Long Time Gone," the sparkling banjo-fiddle exchange catches your ear and serves as a statement: The Chicks are sticking to their traditional country roots rather than playing the pop crossover game that has taken the heart out of so much country music.
The song itself, written by Darrell Scott, also carries a message.
It's the story of a young musician with dreams of becoming part of country music's soulful legacy. But he discovers that the legacy is largely history in Nashville, and he takes a slap at what is left on the radio:
Now they sound tired, but they don't sound Haggard.
They've got money, but they don't have Cash.
They have Junior, but they don't have Hank.
It's a knockout track and not just a token message. The album also contains some rousing, bluegrass-spiked numbers, including the goofball novelty "White Trash Wedding." Banjo, fiddle, dobro and slide guitar elements are also spread throughout the other selections.
But "Home" isn't backward-looking. There is a modern sensibility that runs through the album, chiefly in the way various songs (a third of them written by the trio) reflect on the complexity of relationships. In their earlier albums, the Chicks spoke about breaking loose, finding freedom and self-affirmation.
With each member of the group now married, they selected songs that frequently focus on matters of home and heart, examining love in all its forms, and relationships between people and even countries.
The range is a little too scattered for the album to have the searing impact of Willie Nelson's "Phases and Stages" or Vince Gill's "The Key," two of country's best looks at romance. But "Long Time Gone" confirms the Chicks' place in the Haggard, Cash and Williams tradition.
*** QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE, "Songs for the Deaf", Interscope
Meteorologically, it's tempting to attribute this musical storm front to the reaction between the Queens' arid Southern California desert rock and the soggy Northwest sensibility of new key collaborators Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters) and Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees).
For all their reputation as dangerous, deranged renegades, Queens mainstays Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri have come up with a second album of psychedelic-tinged hard rock (due Tuesday) that's painstakingly modulated and pretty restrained. Its superstructure of mighty chording is honed, sleek and verging on progressive, an impression reinforced by a visit from Alain Johannes and Natasha Schneider from L.A. complex-crunch group Eleven (recent collaborators with another Seattle stalwart, Chris Cornell).
But it's also bracingly primal, from its moments of punk rant to its predominantly taut, ominous aura. The Northwest input results in moments that don't sound too far from old Soundgarden--sad, soulful and dreamy--and drummer Grohl is a particularly notable energy source.
*** 1/2 AIMEE MANN, "Lost in Space", SuperEgo
Sonically, at least, it's more like lost in the spaciousness, as the lush music on the singer-songwriter's fourth album (in stores Tuesday) prettily sprawls to infinity while remaining grounded in her usual themes of emotional codependency, romantic disillusionment and unshakeable self-doubt.
The L.A. resident doesn't address the glaring spotlight that comes with being a fleeting sensation, although she might have, given the media attention she got in 2000 after receiving a best song Oscar nomination for "Save Me," and from joining other talented-but-trend-free musicians deemed unprofitable by major labels in selling her "Bachelor No. 2" album largely through the Internet. Instead, she looks at the addictive power of obsession in the dreamy "High on Sunday 51" and exposes a nasty character in the muscular "Guys Like Me."
Still, even the spare moments are larger than life, cinematically lavished with acoustic guitar, eerie slide work, gurgling keyboards and soaring strings.
Although Mann has long mined this emotional territory, such numbers as "Humpty Dumpty" and the quietly despairing "This Is How It Goes" give the collection a poignant sense of isolation.
The smooth production evokes '70s pop radio but isn't really nostalgic.
Each part is crisply defined, even as the layers of instrumentation and Mann's icily passionate vocals meld seamlessly. "Lost in Space" is certainly Beatles-esque, but it's also very California: laid-back and almost too lovely to be real.
Yet upon closer examination, it's rather unsettled, and unsettling.
** 1/2 EVE, "Eve-Olution", Ruff Ryders/Interscope
With Lil' Kim getting more attention for her breast implants than her music, and Foxy Brown dealing with a bevy of personal issues as well as the public's indifference toward her most recent album, Eve has become hip-hop's go-to girl.
However, on her third collection (in stores Tuesday), the Philadelphia rapper fails to distance herself from the pack. This batch of songs doesn't extend the artistic panache exhibited on her Grammy-winning single with Gwen Stefani, "Let Me Blow Ya Mind." The single "Gangsta Lovin'," with Alicia Keys, reeks of lazy calculation, not the power one would expect from two such talented artists. Likewise, the cat-and-mouse "Figure You Out" and the end-the-relationship tune "Let This Go" sound derivative.
As much as Eve continues to position herself as a slick pop star, her strength lies in her gritty side. Best displayed alongside Snoop Dogg ("Hey Y'all") and label mates the LOX ("Double R What"), Eve's attitude here makes her a compelling listen, a stark contrast to her overly radio-friendly sounds.
*** 1/2 MALI MUSIC, "Mali Music", Astralwerks/Honest Jon's
Toting a beat-up melodica, Blur singer and Gorillaz co-founder Damon Albarn traveled around Mali in July 2000, sitting in and recording with just about any musician he encountered, from internationally known kora player Toumani Diabate to amateur street players. Home in England, he augmented and reworked the recordings before sending them back for further additions by Malian musicians.
That journey isn't very evident on the first track, "Spoons," which could easily be a sample of French film music. But what soon unfolds works both as colorful cross-cultural collaboration and audio travelogue. Albarn never merely puts a beat behind samples of the field recordings, as much so-called world music does, nor does he seek to create a Malian-pop fusion. Rather, he goes for complementary aesthetics and musical dialogue.
Sometimes he wisely stands back and lets the Malian music be. At other times, he takes matters into his own hands as the sole musician ("Le Relax," sporting the reggae dub touches he favored with Gorillaz). The most arresting tracks, though, are the boldest: "Makelekele" is space-age Euro-dance with the accent on the source music's cadences, while the quietly evocative collage "Tennessee Hotel" feels like a happy entry in Albarn's Mali journal.
*** Beenie Man, "Tropical Storm," Virgin. Shaggy's 2001 album, "Hotshot," made adulterated reggae safe for Carson Daly fans, and now Beenie Man, his closest rival in the dancehall subgenre, is trying to claim some of Shaggy's valuable turf. Beenie Man, a.k.a. Anthony Davis, has tasted crossover success before: Like his silly, sing-song 1997 hit "Who Am I," this album is a carefully calibrated bid to please mainstream music fans without alienating his hard-core constituency. The jerky beats and synth accents of dancehall are front and center. Although Beenie Man sneaks in a fair share of R&B; vocal hooks and dumbed-down lyrics, "Tropical Storm" is sturdily grounded in his native reggae.
** 1/2 Kelly Willis, "Easy," Rykodisc.
Having weathered several roots-country, pop-country and alt-country make-overs, Austin, Texas-based Willis has settled in comfortably on her fifth album as part folky singer-songwriter, part honky-tonk angel. A sense of ease in both her gorgeous, unforced singing and her relationship-oriented themes marks her largely acoustic, twang-spiked songs. Only on the late Kirsty MacColl's jaundiced "Don't Come the Cowboy With Me Sunny Jim!" and Marcia Ball's torchy "Find Another Fool," though, does she stray from too-familiar blueprints.
** 1/2 P18, "Electropica," EMI Latin. As an electronica soundscaper, former Mano Negra member Tom Darnel is one tasteful alchemist, and on his group's new album, the keyboardist-composer uses strictly organic ingredients such as rumba chants, Cuban percussion and even a sax solo by Afrobeat star Femi Kuti. P18's intriguing take on the Afro-Latin electro wave is always pleasant, but the collective's second outing loses steam halfway through and never quite recovers from drum machine overkill.
-- Ernesto Lechner
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.