Justin's past the goo, but not yet 'Justified'

Justin Timberlake

"Justified" (Jive)

**

Teenage girls aren't the only ones enamored with 'N Sync's most popular member. In a 2000 Calendar survey asking record executives to name the most valuable pop properties, several cited Timberlake. One even said that he could be the next Michael Jackson.

Timberlake hopes they are right. In much of his debut solo album, you get the feeling that he's been dreaming for years about being the new Michael. But he's still dreaming if he thinks he has pulled it off -- even though he has talked Janet Jackson into singing with him on one song.

"Like I Love You," the first single from the album, comes closest to "Off the Wall"/"Thriller"-era Michael. Timberlake's voice has that familiar breathless, almost whispered quality and sensual tension, and the well-crafted track is nicely updated with some edgy rap touches by Clipse.

Working with such savvy producers as Timbaland and the Neptunes, Timberlake certainly moves dramatically past his 'N Sync goo, although there is still something faceless about his tales of longing for or celebrating intimate encounters.

Timberlake can talk about being able to finally make the music in his heart, but it sounds like nothing more than the music he and his producers thought could get him onto the charts. And before anyone says we need to cut the youngster some slack because he's just 21, remember that Michael was 21 when he made "Off the Wall."

-- Robert Hilburn

Cash's currency: adventurism that packs a punch

Johnny Cash

"American IV: The Man Comes Around" (American/Lost Highway)

*** 1/2

Cash's first three albums with producer Rick Rubin won Grammys, and this one should keep the streak alive. Supplementing his own material with songs from such varied sources as Nine Inch Nails and Hank Williams, it's an eclectic collection whose highlights convey the adventurism and heart that have characterized this country music great's best recordings for half a century.

At 70, Cash's voice is shaky in places, and some of the material seems overly familiar, especially "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." But the key moments are exquisite expressions of human struggle and need that Cash sings with a haunting conviction and depth of feeling. His version of "Give My Love to Rose" captures the song's heartbreak sentiments with far more urgency and darkness than his original '50s recording of the song.

The key tracks carry the authority and punch of the classic live prison albums that Cash recorded in the late '60s. "The Man Comes Around" is a judgment-day tale as stark as anything else Cash has written, while "Sam Hall" is every bit as wildly humorous a slice of human orneriness as "A Boy Named Sue."

A master still at work.

-- R.H.

Words never fail deft lyricist Gray

David Gray

"A New Day at Midnight" (ATO)

***

Proof that Ireland is still the spiritual home of Anglo-Saxon poetry, Gray's 1998 album, "White Ladder," which went double-platinum in the U.S., is now the bestselling noncompilation album of all time there, over U2 and Van Morrison, even Enya.

It's words, not the often same-sounding music, that hang in the air during a Gray song, and on his follow-up album he turns his astounding lyrical talent to darker corners with fresh and devastating effect. On the opening track, "Dead in the Water," Gray cracks the anxieties of being in and out of love in a manner both world-weary and surprising.

Delivered in his Mick Hucknall quaver and with a strange touch of Dylan or John Prine timing, lines such as those to "Kangaroo" seem to leap fully formed from the edges of the collective unconscious: "Will you won't you be my leech / Take it all and when I screech / Leave it there just out of reach / Take me to that burning bush / Give me something I can't crush / Lead me out into the hush."

The death of his father has Gray ruminating on mortality on the soft piano tune "The Other Side," but even this is borne up by the lightness of originality. Gray's "Midnight" is an honest and illuminated place, fearful where it should be but still fully believing in morning.

-- Dean Kuipers

Suddenly, he isn't a Boy wonder

Badly Drawn Boy

"Have You Fed the Fish?" (artistDirect/XL)

** 1/2

What if you're a singer-songwriter with a gift for sweet, wistful pop songs but want to spread your creative wings? Or maybe you're just tired of having your music mistaken on the radio for the delicate sounds of Elliott Smith or the early Paul Simon.

Whatever, Damon Gough (a.k.a. Badly Drawn Boy) moves here from the gentle observation and wisdom of his first two memorable albums -- 2000's "The Hour of Bewilderbeast" and last spring's "About a Boy" soundtrack.

In "Fish," he and co-producer Tom Rothrock add some instrumental muscle, including horns and aggressive percussion, much of which battles for your attention in ways that don't always serve the music's often wistful themes. The bigger problem is that Gough the songwriter has also expanded his world in ways that aren't always helpful.

Rather than focus on the universal feelings of someone searching for his soul mate, Gough is now puzzling at times over the challenge of maintaining his emotional balance (and relationship) amid the increased demands of his escalating success. When he asks a familiar songwriter's question, "How can I give you the answers you need, when all I possess is a melody," you may be tempted to reply, "Not my problem, pal."

-- R.H.

In brief

The Wallflowers

"Red Letter Days" (Interscope)

**

Can't blame Wallflowers main man Jakob Dylan for making changes -- the band's last album, 2000's "Breach," had his most personal and direct songs, but failed to connect with fans. And the subsequent exit of lead guitarist Michael Ward left holes to fill. But the new electronic touches and amped-up production make even lyrics about fresh starts and new frontiers sound more like a retreat.

-- Steve Hochman

Roni Size

"Touching Down" (Full Cycle)

***

In "Touching Down," the Bristol-based Size sheds the annoying upright bass of his jazzy past in favor of an angry, relentless, tech-flavored mix CD of his solo work, reaffirming the buoyancy of drum-and-bass. The style has cycled from the British underground to TV commercials and back, and Size makes a major statement about where it's at today: down in the ghetto.

-- Dennis Romero

Volovan

"Volovan" (Lakeshore)

***

Other Mexican bands have already transposed British dream pop into the Latin rock vernacular. This tuneful Monterrey quartet makes a difference by borrowing the poetic, ethereal vibe of groups like Blur and Pulp and incorporating it into a lo-fi, shimmering guitar pastiche on this disc (already released) that's delightfully idiosyncratic.

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 due in stores Tuesday unless otherwise noted.

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