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They rock or, at least they did

Cafe Tacuba

“Cuatro Caminos” (MCA)

***

Since this acclaimed Mexican quartet has been compared to the Beatles for its innovative spirit, maybe its new album (due in stores Tuesday) was meant to be heard in reverse. Or perhaps it should start in the middle. Because it takes eight tracks (out of 14) to finally arrive at the kind of inspired music that earned Cafe Tacuba its reputation.

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Despite strong numbers by keyboardist Emmanuel del Real, including the bouncy “Eo” and the lovely “Eres” (You Are), the first half of “Cuatro Caminos” (Four Paths) is a letdown. Instead of the usual brilliant mix of rock and techno with native Mexican styles, this premier alt-Latino group chose a more straight-up rock style for its first full-length album in four years, and its first ever using a drummer.

Several cuts are marred by the whiny and bratty vocals of lead singer Ruben Albarran, sounding like a Mexican Dennis the Menace. But when he drops the punk act he can be quietly commanding, as in the haunting “Encantamiento Inutil” (Useless Enchantment), the darkly surreal “Desperte” (I Awoke) and the spare and Zen-like “Hola, Adios” (Hello, Goodbye).

Ultimately, even half a CD from Cafeta (as they’re affectionately nicknamed) is worth a whole one from many lesser acts. But when it abandons its roots, even a group as superb as Cafe Tacuba can wind up sounding like, well, just another gringo band.

-- Agustin Gurza

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No breakthrough this time around

Liz Phair

“Liz Phair” (Capitol)

*

As we near the midpoint of 2003, several contenders have emerged in the race for album of the year, but longtime Phair fans won’t have any trouble narrowing down the list of most disappointing collections to a single CD -- this one.

It’s not even stretching the point to suggest that some Phair fans will genuinely think the pressing plant put the wrong album in the Phair package when they hear some of the air-headed pop on the disc.

Phair’s 1993 album “Exile in Guyville” was a revolutionary pop moment that marked a breakthrough for women in what had been a male specialty for years: sex-driven, confrontational rock ‘n’ roll.

The onetime pop spitfire retains enough sexy images in a few songs here to make sure parental advisories are stuck on the album cover, but the graphic lines feel more obligatory than inspired. Mostly, she takes aim at the pop charts, teaming up on a few numbers with the Matrix, the songwriting-production team that helped shape such Avril Lavigne hits as “Sk8er Boi.”

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There’s nothing wrong with wanting to sell records by connecting with pop radio, but it’s disheartening when the music lacks the smart, seductive qualities Phair once showed, and even fails to fare well against the manufactured pop of most of today’s teen pop stars.

The CD’s most touching moment is “Little Digger,” in which a single mother reflects with insight and warmth on her son’s uneasiness when new suitors show interest in his mom. It’s a song that feels genuine. Little else here comes close.

-- Robert Hilburn

Minimalist style, plentiful talent

Gillian Welch

“Soul Journey” (Acony)

*** 1/2

Authenticity is no birthright. It’s earned. Gillian Welch was reared in Los Angeles but sings pure country blues like a daughter of the Carter Family, with a voice that is understated and emotional. On her fourth album the songs are stripped to their roots, finding a moving intimacy in the most minimalist of Appalachian folk.

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Welch and longtime collaborator David Rawlings piece things together with the barest of essentials: acoustic guitar and a weary, wistful voice well-suited to an empty room -- plus the crucial accents of slide guitar, the wheeze of harmonica, the occasional snare drum beat.

Other songs suggest the subversive edge of Lucinda Williams, minus the eruptions of electric guitar. The heroine of “Look at Miss Ohio” rolls through town in a convertible, singing to herself: “I want to do right, but not right now.” Welch even strays into the sound of the Rolling Stones at their most country on “Wrecking Ball.”

The traditional folk tune “I Had a Real Good Mother and Father” sounds just as true from her lips. The result is unpretentious but powerful. It’s as if that bluegrass audience discovered by the success of the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack inspired Welch to go deeper. Some things even a daughter of the lowlands can understand.

-- Steve Appleford

Some sinister but intoxicating rap

Three 6 Mafia

“Da Unbreakables” (Hypnotize Minds/Columbia)

***

Even though this Memphis-based rap group has a string of gold and platinum albums to its credit, its visibility is among the lowest of any hip-hop group that matters. The quartet’s vicious music, helmed by producers-rappers DJ Paul and Juicy “J,” features searing strings, brutal bass lines and muscular horns.

On its fifth studio album, the streamlined group (both Koopsta Knicca and the disgruntled Gangsta Boo have departed) updates and enhances the formula it has turned into an impressive, lasting career.

When Three 6 Mafia mixes blaxploitation soul with sinister sentiment or conjures up a devious nickname for potent marijuana, the resulting menace is joyfully intoxicating. These songs and the driving, confrontational “Beatem to da Floor” and “Mosh Pit” are likely too rough for mass appeal, though they’re sure to be favorites among the rowdy hip-hop set.

The speedy, club-ready “Shake Dat Jelly” and the warped, slowed-down “Rainbow Colors” probably will be smashes in dance clubs from Texas to Georgia, where Three 6 Mafia’s fan base is strongest. That audience is sure to be more than satisfied by another standout set from the self-proclaimed Kings of Memphis.

-- Soren Baker

Getting older but not wiser

Michelle Branch

“Hotel Paper” (Maverick)

**

The notion of Branch and Avril Lavigne as the anti-Britneys has been so overplayed that you’d think they were Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith. That’s not fair -- they point in more substantial directions than Spears et al, but their debut albums were, in truth, just different shades of professionally polished, fashion-conscious teen-pop.

It also would be unfair to expect a breakthrough simply because Branch is heading out of teenhood. Still, it would have been nice if she’d, uh, branched out more on this second album. “Hotel Paper” is state-of-the-art pop, written by Branch (with producer John Shanks co-writing four songs). There’s just no sense of an emerging artist at work, of anything that’s specifically Branch’s vision in play.

The most distinctive moments seem borrowed, such as “Love Me Like That” -- a duet with Sheryl Crow that could be a Stevie Nicks song, right down to the Lindsey Buckingham-like guitar figure and gypsy reference.

The only thing Branch sings about is dating problems, and she does so in generic terms. Even in “Tuesday Morning,” when she muses “we were finding out who we are,” it’s not an existential issue but a relationship one.

Branch has experienced a big, wide world out there in the last couple of years. Too bad it’s not reflected in her songs.

-- Steve Hochman

Quick spins

Jay Farrar

“Terroir Blues” (Act/Resist)

** 1/2

If Jeff Tweedy has taken Wilco far from the wood-grained Americana of his origins, his former partner in the alt-country fountainhead Uncle Tupelo stays the course on his second solo album. Farrar, who plays the Roxy on July 19, isn’t a slavish roots-hugger, and is willing to indulge a little psychedelia and reverb, but the heart of “Terroir Blues” is pure, intimate chamber-folk right in the Neil Young/ Beck pocket. It’s heartfelt but overly solemn, and no longer trailblazing.

-- Richard Cromelin

Rooney

“Rooney” (Geffen)

**

It’s easy to see why this L.A. quintet is getting so much attention: It looks like the Strokes and bops a lot like Weezer. But its simple pop ultimately lacks the attitude or the ironic wit of those bands. Though some tunes recall the Beach Boys’ sun-soaked sonnets and ELO’s heightened harmonies, rudimentary hooks and retro flair don’t add up to a rousing debut.

-- Lina Lecaro

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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