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A soulful tour de force

Jill Scott

“Beautifully Human” (Hidden Beach/Epic)

*** 1/2

Don’t feel jaded if you look at the weekly bestseller list and find few albums with even a trace of genuine artistic ambition. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking no one can sell 2 million records and still make music that is purposeful and heartfelt.

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One reason Jill Scott’s debut album was so warmly embraced in 2000 was that she exhibited those qualities so grandly. With “Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds, Vol. 1,” she became a leader overnight in the neo-soul movement that also includes Alicia Keys, Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and Angie Stone.

She returned boldly in 2001 with a live album that placed songs from the studio debut in exciting new contexts. Instead of the tasteful, string-heavy arrangements of “Who Is ... " she and her band added aggressive funk backing and a gospel-edged fervor.

In her second studio album, Scott combines the compactness of the first album with some of the more adventurous arrangements of the live one. It’s largely a tour de force that speaks of love and life with an honesty and clarity recalling the optimism of Curtis Mayfield and the occasional dismay of Marvin Gaye.

Equally gifted as a vocalist (offering both the self-assured vitality of Mayfield and the heart of Dinah Washington) and as a writer, the Philadelphia-based Scott makes music that sounds like her own, rather than something carefully tailored to catch the ear of MTV, BET or radio station program directors.

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Whether silky R&B; or more funk-driven, the songs look at relationships in human terms, acknowledging that you can be strong yet vulnerable, independent yet devoted. Like love itself, the music is sometimes playful, even giddy. But there is also room for wonder. No one, of course, claims to understand all the uncertainties of romance.

If anything, Scott spends too much time documenting the various points in the romantic cycle. She is just as insightful when she employs social observation, looking at complications of family ties in “Family Reunion” and senseless violence in “Rasool.”

The hunger for more of this commentary from her is all the greater because Scott seems one of the few artists who has the dedication and compassion to give us a “What’s Going On” for these times. The exciting thing is that another artist, Keys, also appears to have the insight and ambition to try the same thing. Interesting prospects, eh?

-- Robert Hilburn

Ambitious music, even by Bjork’s standards

Bjork

“Medulla” (Elektra)

*** 1/2

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Welcome to the advanced studies program in the department of Bjorkology. This one is for serious students.

Over the last decade, the Icelandic singer has issued a series of challenging albums that have enshrined her as a paragon of artistic independence and idiosyncratic vision.

At the same time, they’re also pretty accessible, with their electronic propulsion and stick-to-the-ears melodies. By that standard, “Medulla” is austere and demanding, more church than club. Two chorales sung in Icelandic take Bjork about as far from the mainstream as she’s gone on her conventional releases, and the album eases up into catchiness only a couple of times.

Instead, Bjork has mounted an elaborate, ambitious, global celebration of the human voice, bounded on one side by the rhythmic utterings of human beat boxes and on the other by the massed force of two separate choirs.

Also in the mix are classical singer and “human trombonist” Gregory Purnhagen, Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq and art-rock cult figures from different eras, Faith No More’s Mike Patton and ‘60s British eccentric Robert Wyatt.

The album’s instrumentation is accordingly minimal, and much of the backing is constructed from vocal sounds -- it’s Bjork’s version of doo-wop, with voices overlapped and layered, braided and embroidered into tactile presences. Sometimes they make wordless sounds, sometimes they deliver Bjork’s observations on nature, myth, metaphysics, love and a dash of politics.

Bjork’s own voice -- supple and serpentine, effortlessly powerful yet hinting at additional reserves of power -- is one of the few in pop that could dominate this rich environment. The luminosity of her performance counters the album’s tendency toward dry formalism, which is most obvious in her adaptation of e.e. cummings’ “Sonnets/Unrealities XI.”

That formalism is the enemy of the spirit Bjork is pursuing and more often than not attains -- a deeply emotional, primordial place where human voice and human experience find their common, transcendent ground.

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-- Richard Cromelin

Sincerely yours, in varying degrees

Alan Jackson

“What I Do” (Arista Nashville)

***

Tim McGraw

“Live Like You Were Dying” (Curb)

**

Two of country music’s leading men address how they feel about their choice of careers on their latest albums, and how each goes about it reveals a lot about his take on singing for a living.

Tim McGraw opens his eighth album with “How Bad Do You Want It,” a Jim Collins-Bill Luther song that begins by invoking bluesman Robert Johnson’s mythical deal with the devil. It’s all about the passion behind singing for a living, nothing to do with anything unique the singer has to offer the world.

Alan Jackson didn’t write his “gosh-aren’t-I-lucky” song either. Tim Johnson’s “To Do What I Do” details the sacrifices most musicians make along the way, with a stronger sense of the specific than McGraw’s, one element that’s long characterized Jackson’s traditionalist country.

McGraw’s album leans heavily on the soap opera-ish tales that have brought him his biggest successes, notably the title tune. But there are a couple of more revealing numbers in which he backs off the emotional hard sell and lets more intimate feelings through, his low-key effectiveness on Craig Wiseman and Steve McEwan’s heartfelt “My Old Friend” being the highlight.

Although Jackson likewise offers few surprises in his 14th album (in stores Tuesday), he continues the devotion to earnest sincerity that’s been the foundation of his career. He wrote five of the album’s 12 songs, which mix lighthearted and melancholy reflections on life and love.

His “Rainy Day in June” reveals deep pain over a broken romance without any heavy-handedness. His “USA Today,” an up-tempo “story of heartbreak and pain [and] a picture of the loneliest man they claim in the USA today,” has the makings of an instant jukebox classic. Dennis Linde’s “The Talkin’ Song Repair Blues,” a witty take on the process of making music, cleverly compares a songwriter to an auto mechanic.

Even when the emotions don’t run especially deep, Jackson always sounds as though he means every word and gives those words his utmost respect, which helps them ring truer than McGraw’s push-button emotionalism, which has come to typify contemporary country.

-- Randy Lewis

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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