Norah Jones Weaves a Haunting Allure; Super Furry Animals Study Anthropology

***1/2

NORAH JONES

"Come Away With Me"

Blue Note

Despite training in jazz, Jones has musical instincts that seem tied far more closely to a soulful, sometimes country-accented brand of pop that is showcased marvelously in this album debut.

The 22-year-old Texan's deliberate, molasses-like vocal style is so understated that it may seem one-dimensional on first listening, but the restraint eventually hooks you with its haunting allure and underlying sense of longing.

Moving between such extremes as the honky-tonk lament of Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart" and the pop-standard turf of Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington's "The Nearness of You," Jones seems equally comfortable and controlled. She even turns John D. Loudermilk's semi-novelty "Turn Me On" into a teasingly sensual experience.

Jones also has some impressive originals from songwriters Lee Alexander and Jesse Harris, who play in her band and contribute such smart, fresh numbers as numbers as "Don't Know Why" and "Seven Years."

Producer Arif Mardin, who has worked with such exquisite singers as Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield, has enough faith in Jones and the material to keep the arrangements intimate and tasteful.

In this age of media overkill, Jones, who will be at the House of Blues in West Hollywood on April 3-4, is getting a lot of attention. But don't think that it's just hype. The highlights here reflect an individuality and honesty that are reminiscent, in a much more low-key way, of Shelby Lynne's extraordinary "I Am Shelby Lynne" collection.

-- Robert Hilburn

***1/2

SUPER FURRY ANIMALS

"Rings Around the World"

XL Recordings/Beggars Group

It's easy to dismiss as frivolous a band that calls itself Super Furry Animals, has a song titled "Happiness Is a Worn Pun" and incorporates prank phone calls into its centerpiece title track. But on the U.S. release of its sixth album (last year's U.K. version plus a seven-song bonus disc), the Welsh quintet joins the league of XTC, Pulp and Blur among Britain's most consistently rewarding, witty purveyors of imaginative pop and cultural anthropology.

A recurring theme in "Rings" (in stores Tuesday) is the fate of regional and individual identities in a shrinking world, with singer Gruff Rhys imagining the Caspian Sea merging with Irish lakes and Korean suburbs as a backdrop to heartbreak. In the title song, he fears that "sooner or later we will melt together" as cell phones make solitude anachronistic--although with its hyper-Beach Boys bubbliness, it may be the most joyous song about satellite telecommunications since "Telstar."

Melting has been good for the music, with SFA gleefully and confidently layering sunny Beatles psychedelia and seductive Bacharach strings with three or four subsequent generations of rock, adorned with lightly applied techno filigree and a variety of peekaboo sonic surprises. Like much great pop music, it is frivolous, but with purpose.

--Steve Hochman

***

CUSTOM

"Fast"

ARTISTdirect

When it comes to music, you're not always looking for the great love of your life--that special artist worth a long-range commitment. Sometimes a little fling is all you want, and who's to say there's anything wrong with enjoying a first-rate seduction, even if you know you're getting snowed?

Case in point: Custom, a singing-songwriting guilty pleasure who purrs in your ear like a Brit-rock urchin (though he's from New York) and showers you with promises of exotic adventure and erotic edginess. Sonically, lyrically and melodically, his debut album (in stores Tuesday) lays it on so thick that you don't have time to deploy your defenses. It's more fun to play along with these blends of swaggering grandiosity and tender vulnerability, concocted from a shot of Bowie/Cure youthful ache, a dash of Queen bombast, an infusion of Nine Inch Nails' tortured soul.

Custom (whose real name is Duane Lavold) taunts his teenage girlfriend's father in "Hey Mister," storyboards a cinematic tale about assassin and target in "Streets" (he's also a filmmaker, wouldn't you know?), and describes a messy romantic triangle in "Morning Spank," all with faux-gritty and raunchy-naughty flair.

You don't have to believe a minute of it to enjoy it thoroughly. And there's no need to hate yourself in the morning.

--Richard Cromelin

***1/2

THE REPUTATION

"The Reputation"

Initial

Elizabeth Elmore has been hurt--by boyfriends, by the breakup of her band Sarge after a quarter-note in the spotlight in 1998, by "so-called friends" who vanished after she shelved her pop aspirations to focus on her Northwestern Law School studies. But her piquant dissection of such transgressions on her new band's upcoming debut resists fits of sulking or rage.

Duplicity and rejection, loyalty and self-reliance--it's pretty much the same mud fellow Midwesterner Liz Phair wallowed in, but Elmore bakes it with resolve, guitars firing, keyboards fluttering, drums struggling mightily to keep up. One stride ahead of the pop/punk rattle, Elmore's flat-like-an-angel vocals belie some of her songs' feral content: You've learned to play the victim perfectly / If everything's my fault you're not to blame / for all your simpering diatribes on how I've caused you so much pain.

Her streaming anecdotes give the listener the feeling of walking right into the middle of life-altering events. Maybe, now that Elmore is hitting the clubs and not the law library, we have. The Reputation performs tonight at Chain Reaction in Anaheim, Monday at Spaceland in Silver Lake and Wednesday at the Glass House in Pomona.

--Kevin Bronson

**

VARIOUS ARTISTS

"Blade II" soundtrack"

Immortal

The teaming of some the biggest names from the genres of hip-hop and electronic music gives the soundtrack to "Blade II" a unifying concept. But despite the genre-crossing duets, including Cypress Hill with Roni Size and Paul Oakenfold with Ice Cube, this is still a collection (due in stores Tuesday) of various artists, and as such it suffers from the inconsistency that plagues many compilations.

Eve and Fatboy Slim's "Cowboy" is a complete mess, with Eve rushing out cliches over the normally skilled Slim's clanging instrumentation, which sounds like a child banging kitchen utensils. On the opposite end is Massive Attack and Mos Def's "1 Against 1," whose rhythmic digital beats make an excellent contrast for Def's up-tempo rhyming. Also notable is "Tao of the Machine," a natural meshing of BT's large trance hooks and the Roots' rapid-fire delivery.

These and the other successful tracks, including Moby and Mystikal's dark "Gettin' Aggressive," work because the styles find a way to coexist. But more often, one artist overpowers the other, as Redman does to Gorillaz in "Gorillaz on My Mind." The idea behind the "Blade II" soundtrack is a good one. Maybe by "Blade III" it'll be perfected.

-- Steve Baltin

**1/2

CLINIC

"Walking With Thee"

Domino

Let's see: Hail from Liverpool. Endorsed by the alchemist laureate of modern rock, Thom Yorke. Named buzzworthy by Rolling Stone. Original shtick--they wear surgical masks while performing.

Good thing, because the arty babble emanating from this quartet's second album is so ... well, dirty. Imagine a surf/punk band with broken guitars locked overnight in a cobwebbed studio, and here is what you get--wobbly organ lines and assorted keyboard squalor that pulse behind Ade Blackburn's measured bleating. The haunting results feel as if the players have scared the songs out of their instruments.

While their sound makes for an intriguing change of pace, songs such as "Harmony," "Come Into Our Room" and the title track merely brim with drama rather than deliver any sort of payoff. Perhaps that's enough. But maybe--amid all that smoldering and no fire--you root for Clinic's drone to exceed its buzz.

Clinic performs Tuesday at the Troubadour in West Hollywood.

--K.B.

In Brief

*** Billy Bragg & the Blokes, "England, Half-English," Elektra. Having explored 20th century Americana via Woody Guthrie lyrics and collaborations with Wilco in two albums, the London leftist returns his social critic's attention with new insights and vigor to life as an "Anglo hyphen Saxon in England.co.uk." Bragg celebrates the proliferation of other multicultural U.K. hyphenations in both words (the Ian Dury-like title song) and music (with former 3 Mustaphas 3 string player Ben Mandelson and former Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan leading the Blokes). S.H.

** Ol' Dirty Bastard, "The Trials and Tribulations of Russell Jones," D3. With a real life more chaotic than any of the ones depicted on his crazed recordings, this Wu-Tang Clan member must have patched together his third album (due Tuesday) in between trips to rehab and prison. ODB's maniacal, rancid raps ring with his typical paranoia, but he seems like a guest on his own project. In fact, a bevy of cameos from less charismatic rappers and the collection's B-level production create their own set of tribulations--for listeners.

--Soren Baker

*** Vocal Sampling, "Cambio de Tiempo," Ciocan Music. It's been a long road to U.S. release for this third album by Cuba's astonishing a cappella vocal group. Recorded two years ago and released last year in Europe, the 14-song collection got derailed here by Sept. 11. The wait is worth it. The six-man group, founded for fun in 1992, has perfected its vocal ventriloquism and expanded its repertoire with outstanding original songs by leader Rene Banos, such as the clever narrative "Melodia de la Impaciencia."

--Agustin Gurza

*

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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