Lynne's new days of daring

Shelby Lynne

"Identity Crisis" (Capitol)

*** 1/2

It took this fiercely independent singer a dozen years of navigating record industry minefields to finally make an album that properly showcased the raw passion and soulful instincts that always seemed within her reach.

But when the dark, tormented strains of 2000's "I Am Shelby Lynne" didn't connect with record buyers, Lynne set out in 2001's "Love, Shelby" to make a lighter, more radio-friendly album in the hopes of making not just critics' Top 10 lists but also the Top 10 sellers list. When that uneven work failed to bring her a wider audience (and caused some old fans to scratch their heads), Lynne turned once more to her daring side -- with mostly marvelous results.

"If I Were Smart" is the most moving torch song Lynne has written, and her vocal captures brilliantly the disabling pain of losing a soul mate -- an ache so bad that it may be better to sacrifice all feeling rather than risk the chance of being hurt that way again. "If I were smart, I wouldn't have a heart," Lynne sings.

Other tunes, notably "I Don't Think So," also express the isolation of "I Am Shelby Lynne," but she also steps beyond the shadows of that album in bright, even playful ways. "Lonesome," a lushly orchestrated country ballad, is an even better Patsy Cline salute than LeAnn Rimes' "Blue."

There are a couple of rough spots (including the unchecked anger of "Evil Man" and the cosmic undercurrents of "One With the Sun"), but the heart of "Identity Crisis" mixes country, soul, pop and rock influences in ways that are wonderfully heartfelt and true.

-- Robert Hilburn

Dave Matthews goes it alone -- for now

Dave Matthews

"Some Devil" (RCA)

**

Et U2, Dave?

Matthews hasn't left the band that bears his name. Rather, he says he found himself with a growing pile of songs that didn't quite fit the Dave Matthews Band so he decided to pull them together in a solo outing (in stores Tuesday). Some, especially "Grey Blue Eyes," "Save Me" and "Trouble," would have been perfectly suited for a band -- if it happened to be U2. In particular, "Trouble," with its haunted spiritual yearning and Matthews' woody, low vocal, sounds like an outtake from Bono and company's atmospheric work with producer Daniel Lanois.

Several other songs here roam and ramble, almost without structure, as Matthews takes advantage of his newfound freedom from whatever restrictions bind him in the band setting. The result often suggests a kid in a musical costume store: New Orleans soul funk here ("Up and Away (Eden)"), a late-night, falsetto-driven lament ("An' Another Thing"), Zeppelin-esque eerie rock balladry ("Some Devil Some Angel").

DMB fans probably will be content to go along for the ride while deciphering whatever it is he's getting at here, but others will be left to ask: Will the real Dave Matthews please stand up?

Randy Lewis

An artist with baggage packs it in

Sinead O'Connor

"She Who Dwells ..." (Vanguard)

***

If you measure artistry by the courage to fiercely explore painful themes as well as by insight and craft, Sinead O'Connor may well be the most gifted and influential female singer-songwriter of her generation. But you understand why she has called it quits. It's hard to maintain a musical career when so many people think you're nuts.

That's a harsh but honest summary of the way much of the pop world has forgotten the power of O'Connor's best work (including the hauntingly personal 1990 album "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got") and has been so turned off by the often controversial or bizarre twists in her personal life -- which just started warming up, it has turned out, with her tearing up a photo of Pope John Paul II on "Saturday Night Live" in 1992.

In this new two-CD package that is being billed as her farewell album, O'Connor cleans out her musical closet, so to speak. One disc features 19 rare or unreleased tracks as well as newly recorded material. Disc two is O'Connor's first live recording -- 13 songs, including her signature version of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U," that were recorded at a concert last year in Dublin.

It's not a collection meant for the casual fan (the best O'Connor introduction is the single-disc collection "So Far.... the Best of Sinead O'Connor"), but there are moments here that O'Connor loyalists will prize -- most notably three tracks (including the R&B; standard, "Do Right Woman -- Do Right Man") that she recorded with Brian Eno, the imaginative producer who has done such great work with O'Connor's countrymen, U2.

The album's most surprising selection is a sweet but soulful rendition of ABBA's "Chiquitita." While not ignoring the brightness and bounce of the tune, O'Connor homes in on the song's underlying sadness.

The album's most tender moment comes at the end of the concert disc, where she chooses to say goodbye with "The Last Day of Our Acquaintance," a song that describes a relationship turned so bitter that a couple's final words to each other come in the formality of a lawyer's office.

By closing with it, O'Connor turns the song's final line into a statement of regret from her to an audience that has closed a door on their relationship. "I'll talk but you won't listen to me," O'Connor sings. "I know your answer already."

Robert Hilburn

Don't mess with DMX

DMX

"Grand Champ" (Def Jam)

***

"Only I can stop the rain, when every day of my life is a constant fight between wrong and right," the gravel-voiced rapper proclaims on "The Rain," a relatively calm cut on his predominantly explosive fifth album. While most popular rappers have sustained their careers by boasting of their material spoils, this volatile Yonkers artist has thrived by attempting to exorcise his demons in his charged music.

Wrong and right may be one of DMX's primary concerns, but throughout "Grand Champ" his rap rivals and those he accuses of impersonating him (notably Ja Rule) are the focus of much of his scorn on such selections as the thumping "Where the Hood At" and "We Go Hard," which features an impressive guest turn by Cam'Ron.

Throughout the 23 cuts, DMX's supercharged vocal delivery and ultra-intense production create a "Fight Club"-like aura of brutality that matches his hostile, confrontational words, even when he's praying to God or trying to resolve his own issues. Indeed, it's DMX's brute force and unyielding emotion rather than his lyrical complexity that makes his music so compelling. He's an everyman struggling to find his way in a world where the lines between right and wrong shift constantly.

-- Soren Baker

The many moods of Erykah Badu

Erykah Badu

"Worldwide Underground" (Motown)

***

Badu's acrobatic voice can scat or belt you to attention. But it's the hip-hop soul heroine's intimate breathy purr that draws listeners into her third album (due Tuesday), a streetwise, baroque celebration of the different kinds of music that move her. At times sprawling and eccentric enough to have her schooling a fictional audience on the flute-accented "Woo," this melding of old-school funk, jazzy instrumentation and dancey bleeps nevertheless flows well.

Dance-music rhythms and synth give a sexy sheen to the percussive nostalgia trip "Back in the Day" and "Bump It (pt. 1&2)," a languid siren song with jazzy vocals and an insistent bass line. Yet Badu also continues her storytelling and social commentary with "Danger," depicting a woman waiting for her man to come home from prison. Using precisely placed sound snippets, the song communicates the cost of ill-gotten gains, from conscience pangs to bullet wounds.

The handclaps, group singing and block-party euphoria of "Love of My Life World Wide" are precariously balanced against the harsher worldview of "The Grind." But Badu manages the highs and lows with casual aplomb, and although she may try the patience of some with the 11-minute desire opus "I Want You," the ace musicianship and her own sense of when to shift the mood more than get her by.

-- Natalie Nichols

A change of direction for Mr. C

Elvis Costello

"North" (Deutsche Grammophon)

*** 1/2

Well, it was fun while it lasted, but you can put away the dancing shoes. Elvis has left the ballroom.

Last year's "When I Was Cruel" was Costello's return to the sound and spirit of the snarling young rocker, but since his career is an adventure in genre-hopping, it's no surprise to see him pirouette 180 degrees. American saloon song meets European art song in "North" (in stores Tuesday), which recounts a romantic meltdown and reawakening in the vernacular of pre-rock torch music and jazz-dappled pop standards.

Tempos range from near-stillness to measured, the emotional pitch is rigorously restrained, the modulations of mood are sometimes all but imperceptible. A meditative tone emerges from spare settings -- some songs are formed by just piano, bass and voice, while others introduce strings and horns -- and from a focus on the specifics of this singer's story. Costello's phrasing is conversational but idiosyncratic, and his register is a clear, intimate baritone.

Lyrically, the noted wordsmith seems determined to avoid knee-jerk signifiers and easy slogans, big-sell choruses and clever couplets. That keeps him well clear of cliches, but the bargain leaves his introspections on the dry side, sometimes to the point of austerity. That "North" remains so consistently moving testifies to the music's power to animate the scenarios.

-- Richard Cromelin

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

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