Ludacris takes the Pepsi challenge

Ludacris

"Chicken-N-Beer" (Def Jam South)

*** 1/2

This Atlanta artist earned a high-profile adversary last year when conservative TV-radio commentator Bill O'Reilly chastised Pepsi for using the R-rated rapper to push its soda. Ludacris subsequently lost his endorsement and he strikes back at O'Reilly on his third major-label album.

But as is typically the case with Ludacris' intense yet lighthearted music, there's more humor than rage in his disdain for his TV foe. Ludacris levels verbal jabs at O'Reilly on the searing "Blow It Out" and the comedic "Hoes in My Room."

It's the rapper's way with words and his engaging delivery patterns that have made him one of the genre's most popular and consistently rewarding artists. Ludacris showcases his verbal gymnastics throughout this 17-cut collection and dedicates the chorus-free, three-minute plus "Hip-Hop Quotables" to demonstrating his knack for stringing together clever couplets.

Elsewhere, the dance floor-ready "Stand Up" is one of the year's best rap singles, while "P-Poppin'" makes X-rated sex talk so funny that it's hard to disapprove. Never one to shy away from some of his less than honorable pursuits, Ludacris delivers a tongue-in-cheek discussion of drugs on "Screwed Up" and touts his penchant for firearms on "We Got."

Ludacris should expect to hear from O'Reilly again, real soon.

-- Soren Baker

Meshell Ndegeocello tones down the vitriol

Meshell Ndegeocello

"Comfort Woman" (Maverick)

***

"Would you walk a righteous path without the promise of heaven, paradise, streets paved in gold?" singer-bassist Ndegeocello asks in "Fellowship," a plea (or demand, really) for understanding across religious lines.

The song has its sharp edges, but like most of these 10 tracks, the vitriol that's part of her previous four collections is dialed down, making the track more questioning than accusatory, its ruminations more reflective than confrontational. Indeed, "Comfort Woman" (in stores Tuesday) floats in a cocoon of harmonic near-ecstasy, from the clouds of bliss on "Come Smoke My Herb" to the carnal pleasures coaxed from "Body."

The album title implies the fleeting favors of a temporary tryst, but Ndegeocello actually celebrates more lasting kinds of love, the physical and spiritual entwined in both flesh and soul. The music flows like water, blending her distinct, embedded-in-the-heart bass lines with jazz, R&B; and pulsating electronica.

Nothing here is so politically charged as some of her earlier numbers, but Ndegeocello has always mixed the push and pull of relationships with her cultural commentaries and social views. And in truth, even while opting for this more soothing stance, she still manages to say something about the state of the world.

-- Natalie Nichols

PJ Harvey finds a musical oasis

Various artists

"The Desert Sessions 9 & 10" (Ipecac)

***

It's either Halloween all the time on the desert, or Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme just has an ear for the evil that taints the winds in Joshua Tree. But on the latest volumes of the guitarist-vocalist's near-continuous side project, Desert Sessions (each volume approximates one side of vinyl), J-Ho & Co. forgo some of their characteristic generator-party sludgefuzz excess for an even more dangerous dalliance with the funereal blues of PJ Harvey.

Harvey first makes her presence felt in the backing vocals, piano and sax she provides on the lighthearted "I Wanna Make It Wit Chu." But she asserts psychological dominance in the hollowed-out one-take blues screed "There Will Never Be a Better Time."

Stone Age-style guitar howl still abounds, with the boys extending their road-rock fascinations with "In My Head? Or Something" and the psycho-funk of "Subcutaneous Phat."

But Homme's misfit casting gels like never before on a couple of these songs, most notably on the spooky fuzz-bath "Crawl Home" and electro-minuet "Powdered Wig Machine." These are satisfying, fully realized songs by what sounds like a new band first finding artistic convergence. With Harvey in full, baleful voice, and the band locked in at its most extroverted, we can only hope this is a portent of more (evil) things to come.

-- Dean Kuipers

Pedestal becomes stumbling block

Martina McBride

"Martina" (RCA)

**

In the 11 years since her debut album, this plucky singer has staked out her territory as country music's poster woman for female independence and self-sufficiency. That mantle often becomes a burden on her sixth studio album.

Her intentions are noble, but only frequently do those intentions manifest in revealing artistry. She's chosen more anthems of self-worth, but they celebrate triumph over adversity in such generalized terms that they cheat the listener out of specifics that might lend those victories the weight of truth.

She puts her richly colorful voice to best use on the Jamie O'Neal-Shaye Smith-Ed Hill ballad "How Far," which contains most of what little real-life ambiguity exists here. "Reluctant Daughter" also provides her with an effectively humble gospel ode to acceptance of one's shortcomings as prerequisite for personal growth.

McBride's next step in her growth as an artist may be a step down from the pedestal to rejoin the regular folk.

-- Randy Lewis

For Travis, a loss of innocence

Travis

"12 Memories" (Epic)

**

Before Coldplay, Travis was the band from across the Atlantic that seemed destined to capture the hearts of American listeners with wonderfully tuneful and disarmingly warmhearted music.

There were enchanting moments sprinkled through the Scottish quartet's first two albums, but it was really the live shows where everything came together as lead singer Fran Healy reached out to audiences in ways that reminded you of the uplifting verve of U2.

Travis' music didn't have the ambition or depth of the Irish quartet, but there was something genuinely engaging in the songs, and the band captured the spirit of its live shows so well in 2001's "The Invisible Band" that stardom seemed theirs.

But rock radio turned instead to the slightly darker and more challenging sounds of Coldplay. In returning to action with this album (due Tuesday), Travis seems intent on adding a bit of darkness and depth to its own sound, with themes ranging from spousal abuse to social apathy. The results, however, aren't encouraging.

Some of the early Beatlesesque brightness remains, but too many tracks lack the innocent, outgoing spirit that seems to be the band's forte. The strain here could be the sign of a band going through a difficult transition, but it feels like the work of a group in midcareer crisis.

Robert Hilburn

Hooray for Dollywood

Various artists

"Just Because I'm a Woman/Songs of Dolly Parton" (Sugar Hill)

***

Even if you think most tribute albums are wastes and you've let the pop gloss of Dolly Parton's post-"9 to 5" career make you forget she once was one of country music's most gifted singer-songwriters, this album should win you over.

Parton's strength in the '60s and '70s was mixing homespun country tradition with smart commentaries about everyday values and struggles.

A wonderful array of singers -- including Emmylou Harris, Shelby Lynne, Sinead O'Connor and Meshell Ndegeocello-- are in peak form, covering such Parton gems as the feminist-minded "To Daddy" and "Coat of Many Colors," with its theme of parental love. Alison Krauss even brings a rootsy charm to "9 to 5" that sheds most of the pop trimmings of Parton's own 1980 rendition.

Best of all, Norah Jones continues her remarkable creative streak with a version of Parton's recent "The Grass Is Blue" that has the character and charm of her own "Come Away With Me" album. In the song, Parton describes the way love can turn your world upside down, and Jones' delicate vocal is wonderfully convincing: "And I'm happy now and I'm glad we're through / And the sky is green and the grass is blue."

Aside from some merely adequate performances (by Shania Twain, Joan Osborne and Melissa Etheridge), the biggest disappointment is the absence of Jack White's anxious take on "Jolene," which is a highlight of White Stripes concerts.

-- Robert Hilburn

Singles File

An occasional look at single recordings of special interest.

Starsailor

"Silence Is Easy"/"White Dove" (EMI)

***

This British quartet's collaboration last year with Phil Spector, the long-inactive producer whose lavish "Wall of Sound" is one of the most influential in all of rock, doesn't revive that bold sound in a big way but does echo the sonic grandeur associated with him.

"Silence Is Easy," the leadoff single from the album (which won't be released here until January but is already in stores in England), bears more of the Spector stamp, building from a sparse opening to an almost symphonic climax.

"White Dove," with its benedictory chorus, would seem a natural for the Spector sonic onslaught. But by avoiding the obvious, Spector -- a suspect in the February shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson at his Alhambra mansion -- creates something intensely intimate and perhaps even more moving.

Call it the White Picket Fence of Sound.

-- Randy Lewis

Tupac (featuring the Notorious B.I.G.)

"Runnin' "(Interscope)

***

Some rap fans believe both Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. died because of their bitter, intense rivalry, but both demonstrate on this Eminem-produced single that they had the potential to make magnificent music together.

Tupac's verse (from unreleased material) details his constant struggle with right and wrong, while B.I.G.'s verse (previously released) contains the type of hard-edged cleverness that typified his better work. Eminem's macabre beat adds another layer of menace to this magical pairing of two of rap's most significant figures.

-- Soren Baker

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).

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