Straight From His (Intact) Soul

EELS

"Souljacker"

DreamWorks

****

Eels frontman E (a.k.a. Los Angeles' Mark Oliver Everett) makes viscerally melodic music that matches his emotionally intense ruminations. Sometimes the results are quite accessible (1998's "Electro-Shock Blues"), other times more introverted (2000's "Daisies of the Galaxy"). This time, E has balanced the slip-slamming appeal of the group's first radio hit, "Novocaine for the Soul," with an idea nearly as sobering as the death musings of "Electro-Shock Blues."

According to E's message on Eels' official Web site, "Souljacker" (due in stores Tuesday) stems from his thought that if you fail to appreciate your soul, you could have it stolen and not even notice it's gone. "I then realized that no one can take your soul if you know what you have and you don't want them to," he writes. He explores this idea from two viewpoints, in "Souljacker Part I," a vaguely Doors-feeling number about a soulless life, and "Souljacker Part II," a driftier tune in which a potential victim stands his ground.

These dozen vignettes tell odd tales that range from bleak to chilling to weirdly uplifting, but the music is the innovative icing on the cake. "Jungle Telegraph" blends thumping dance beats with folk-blues elements a la Moby, and contributions from PJ Harvey collaborators (John Parish co-produces and plays several instruments, and guitarist Joe Gore appears on some tracks) enhance the essence of Eels' fragmented fusion of hip-hop, rock and folk, while recalling the lush/stark melodies on Harvey's last album.

Yet E is his own man, and this unique collection is the closest to perfection a rock record has reached so far in the young year.

--Natalie Nichols

***

ELY GUERRA

"Lotofire"

Higher Octave/Virgin

This brooding work (due Tuesday) marks the U.S. album debut by a moody Mexican singer-songwriter considered a leading light of Latin alternative music. Recorded in New York and originally released to critical acclaim by EMI Mexico in 1999, "Lotofire" has been remixed and repackaged with an extra song. The original 10 are written or co-written by Guerra along with Venezuelan producer Andres Levin.

Compared with the full-throttle melodrama of many Mexican pop artists, Guerra is the anti-singer. Understated, breathy and ethereal, her voice floats like incense over hypnotic electronica and muffled trip-hop beats. She sings as if Spanish had no accents, emitting syllables with a new-age detachment that can seem cold and disembodied at first. A novice listener feels the fire underneath only by lingering.

Influenced by Peter Gabriel and compared to PJ Harvey, Guerra creates a mystical stillness with her lone voice and solo guitar in the prayer-like "El Mar" (The Sea). On "Vete" (Go Away), she speaks for Mexico's exploited Indians with a steely resolve driven by ritually escalating rhythms. And in the insistent "Yo No" (Not Me), she demands respect as a woman.

This remarkable collection requires time and meditation to appreciate. The reward is discovering a world-class artist.

--Agustin Gurza

***1/2

N.E.R.D.

"In Search Of ... "

Virgin

As the in-demand production team the Neptunes, Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo have tended to build hip-hop hits around hard, in-your-face hooks that aren't easily forgotten. One thinks of the clipped guitar figure that loops through Britney Spears' "I'm a Slave 4 U" or the sing-along chorus that chirps up Ol' Dirty Bastard's "Got Your Money." For their debut album (due Tuesday) as the band N.E.R.D., Williams, Hugo and third member Shay work that same stratagem across 12 tracks.

This is the second draft of the album. The first, made with drum machines and samples, was scotched in favor of the live instrumentation found here. It was good move--the warm guitars and keyboards give "In Search Of ... " a sonic expansiveness that is all too rare in hip-hop.

The overall tone is playful but pointed. Ebullient grooves that owe as much to '80s new wave and garage rock as they do hip-hop underscore lyrics about corrupt politicians, drug addicts and risque role-playing. Williams and Hugo think a few thematic levels above most rap artists--songs such as "Brain" and "Provider" alternately mock and celebrate the big pimping life, while "Rock Star" decries the plastic personae of celebrities. The most venturesome hip-hop album in recent memory.

--Marc Weingarten

**1/2

BRANDY

"Full Moon"

Atlantic

At age 23, singer-actress Brandy is all grown up--married to producer Robert Smith, pregnant with her first child and offering some sadder-wiser views of romance on her third album. Yet her maturing voice, though inviting and more resonant, isn't the star of this show.

That would be producer-writer Rodney Jerkins. The principal figure behind her previous collection, 1998's "Never Say Never," handles most of the "Full Moon" tracks as well, and he has a singular way of texturizing a track. Here he crafts conventional sentiments into unusual shapes by blending wide-open space, angular beats and a toy box full of bleeps, beeps and buzzes, resulting in such innovative-sounding numbers as "I Thought," a squishy electro-funk dissection of a bad romance, and the stark, shambling, accusation "What About Us?"

In addition to standing up for herself against a hyper-critical lover in "Apart," Brandy unleashes her sexuality in such do-me-baby numbers as "When You Touch Me," which evokes old-school quiet storm with its tingly keyboards and breathy yearning. But she also celebrates meeting the Right One with the giddily romantic "He Is."

Despite the variety of moods, "Full Moon" feels overlong at 73 minutes, and the music is so electronic it starts to feel mechanical, despite Jerkins' sonic brainstorms. Brandy's vocals are quite agreeable but lack character, and not even this clever producer could completely compensate for that.

-- N.N.

In Brief

*** Brendan Benson, "Lapalco," Star Time. "Folk Singer," which appeared on last year's International Pop Overthrow festival compilation, portended great things for this Michigan native's first album since "One Mississippi" in 1996. Benson--with the indefatigable Jason Falkner as collaborator on five tracks--does not disappoint, employing glistening harmonies, subtle production flourishes, and unexpected stops and starts to apply a shine and a smile to his charmingly self-effacing power pop.

--Kevin Bronson

**1/2 Killa Beez, "The Sting," KOCH/In the Paint. The second installment of this Wu-Tang Clan-fronted offshoot project (in stores Tuesday) demonstrates the polarized ends of the Wu-Tang's musical spectrum. Strong, clever, vivid raps from members Method Man and Inspectah Deck anchor the edgy collection, but are sandwiched between pedestrian offerings from the group's auxiliary B-level and C-level artists. This "Sting" isn't as piercing as it could have been. Soren Baker

Freddy Fender, "La Musica de Baldemar Huerta," Back Porch/Virgin. The 64-year-old Tex-Mex icon, known best for country hits such as "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights," just won his first Grammy as a soloist for this routine collection of Latin American standards. Originally released on his own label last year and reissued last month, the album retains a low-budget, homemade feel. Sadly, Fender's triumph comes at a time when age and illness have ravaged his voice, making it especially painful to hear the shaky reprise of his No. 1 pop hit from 1975, "Before the Next Teardrop Falls."

--A.G.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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