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Williams can shine like a Pearl

Lucinda Williams

“Live @ the Fillmore”

(Lost Highway)

* * * 1/2

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There’s something marvelously appropriate about one of today’s most revealing singer-songwriters recording a live album in a venue so strongly identified with the ‘60s San Francisco rock scene that showcased Janis Joplin.

Other women have aimed for the raw urgency of Joplin’s explosive blues-rock style, but none has come as consistently close to sharing Joplin’s naked vulnerability as Williams.

Despite the relatively laid-back nature of her folk-country style, Williams also gives us a little piece of her heart each time she steps on stage -- and this two-disc package from the fall of 2003 presents her at her most commanding.

The album’s chief problem is the set list. Though there is room on a two-disc set for more than 140 minutes, “Fillmore” runs just 115. She could have used the additional time to include such essential signature tunes as “Sweet Old World” and more than just two numbers from her acclaimed “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.”

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Here, Williams sings tunes taken mostly from her “Essence” and “World Without Tears” albums with such openness and character that it’s like hearing some of them for the first time.

In the nearly two dozen tracks, Williams, backed by a three-piece band, touches again and again on relationships gone wrong, sifting through the ashes to find out what ignited the fire in the first place and what eventually snuffed it out. Through it all, she doesn’t lose hope.

Williams speaks longingly in “Ventura” about the caressing power of music, declaring in one verse about a solitary drive:

Take the long way home

So I can ride around

Put Neil Young on

And turn up the sound.

The truth is Williams’ music is so soulful and illuminating that you could just as easily picture Young singing “Ventura” and substituting Williams’ name for his own. It’s equally inviting to imagine how Joplin, who showed a splendid feel for country-accented material on Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” might have handled some of the most compelling of these songs.

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-- Robert Hilburn

*

Gorillaz has ways to make your day

Gorillaz

“Demon Days” (Virgin)

* * * 1/2

THE hit single from the Gorillaz’s 2001 debut was “Clint Eastwood.” This time the single honors his fictional character “Dirty Harry.” Does that mean that the “band” -- already a conceit presented as four cartoon street urchins -- moves even further into its gritty fantasy world?

Yes and no. Danger Mouse, co-producing the album (due in stores Tuesday) with Gorillaz leader (and Blur singer) Damon Albarn, sonically paints a stark, surreal urban landscape. His inventive, colorful touch marks the rubbery funk and kids chorus on “Dirty Harry,” the CinemaScope of “O Green World” and the hard hip-hop of “November Has Come.” Guests including Neneh Cherry, De La Soul, Ike Turner (a piano solo) and Dennis Hopper are woven in without sacrificing coherence.

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But it’s Albarn’s evocative words, compelling if understated melodic sense and subdued vocals that are the emotional center, transcending the gimmick even more than on the first Gorillaz album. The images of dislocation and drift in “Kids With Guns” and “Every Planet We Reach Is Dead” seem to bridge the “Clockwork Orange"/anime dystopia of the cartoon characters with the very real North African desert where Albarn spent time in recent years -- though with a sense of hope embodied by a gospel choir on the two closing songs. A cartoon can be more real than reality.

-- Steve Hochman

*

Understated songs raise the mercury

Mercury Rev

“The Secret Migration” (V2)

* * *

Thinking big isn’t always about grand statements and career moves. For a band like Mercury Rev, it’s just a state of being, a natural means of expression, so that even a stripped-down, song-focused work such as “The Secret Migration” ends up as quietly epic.

There is undeniable sweep to these 13 understated tracks, a modern psychedelic current that is lush, ominous and lovely. Leader Jonathan Donahue continues to sing in fragile, supernatural tones, crooning and quivering of love and obsession on “Secret for a Song” (“I’ll give you my soul, babe, and one day you’ll give me yours”).

Everywhere here, the band mingles sounds equally delicate and powerful, stepping into the echoing, muffled beats of an old Phil Spector production on the surf-flavored “In a Funny Way.” And Donahue’s wounded voice cracks, squeaks and soars amid some urgent, emotional piano melodies on “First-Time Mother’s Joy (Flying).”

Mercury Rev isn’t exactly breaking the mold here. This is familiar territory for the band, reaching somewhere short of its exceptional 1998 album “Deserter’s Songs,” which enjoyed the odd Appalachian, folk touches of bowed saw and members of the Band. But falling short isn’t failing, at least when an accomplished band’s comfort zone already resides at a dependably high level. If anything, Mercury Rev suffers from a strange and rare ailment: under-indulgence.

-- Steve Appleford

*

Jakob Dylan’s skills still blossoming

The Wallflowers

“Rebel, Sweetheart” (Interscope)

* * *

It’s been almost a decade since Jakob Dylan was the exciting new kid on the block. Such evocative, ‘70s-flavored pop-rock tunes as “One Headlight” helped the Wallflowers’ “Bringing Down the Horse” album sell some 4 million copies and earn two Grammys.

Sales and attention for Bob Dylan’s son have dropped off considerably since then, a development that could sap the will of a performer, especially one carrying the weight of his family tradition. Yet the best moments of “Rebel, Sweetheart” (in stores Tuesday) show that Dylan is writing better than ever.

Like many of his tunes, the especially seductive “The Passenger” tries to make sense of crazy times. With the rich, evocative spirit of early Jackson Browne, Dylan sings about being caught up in a society that doesn’t quite know where it is or should be headed: “I’m too far gone to know where I am/ Conditions are worse than we planned/ Permission now to let this thing land.”

Elsewhere, Dylan looks at social issues (the war backdrop of “Days of Wonder”), personal matters and subjects in between. The delicate “How Far You’ve Come” is a pep talk that could be addressed to himself, a loved one or the country.

Not everything in the album speaks as clearly or as profoundly as these tunes, and the Wallflowers’ arrangements tend to be somewhat anonymous at times. But Dylan’s images are sharper than ever and his vision more focused. He’s no longer the new kid on the block, but he has never sounded more vital.

-- R. H.

*

He hasn’t earned the promotion

Memphis Bleek

“534"

(Roc-A-Fella/Island Def Jam)

**

“Everybody debatin’, when Bleek gonna claim the title that they gave him,” this Brooklyn rapper exclaims with a clear sense of purpose on “Hater Free,” an energetic cut from his mediocre fourth album. The question is whether Bleek is the heir to the rap throne of Jay-Z, who introduced him on his 1996 album “Reasonable Doubt,” and who allegedly retired after the release of his 2003 collection “The Black Album.”

With the release of each of his albums, Bleek has been billed as a rap star “just one hit away,” but other than 2000’s strong “The Understanding,” his releases have been uneven collections of rap cliches and music production styles that have been pioneered by other artists.

“534" is no exception. For instance, the single “Like That” features a lively but undistinguished bounce beat from the normally sensational Swizz Beatz, while “First, the Last, the Only” features a string of lyrically anemic boasts from the rapper. “Dear Summer” a soulful Jay-Z song that does not feature Memphis Bleek but is nonetheless included on “534,” makes it clear that the master is trying to pass his torch to someone whose skill isn’t commensurate with the attention showered on him.

-- Soren Baker

*

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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