Fergie is down with dirty

Fergie

"The Duchess"

(will.i.am Music Group/A&M;)

* *

REMEMBER when the worst thing a kid could do was love heavy metal? That parental fear has been replaced by the specter of prepubescent Black Eyed Peas fans. A stick-thin grade-schooler singing the booty anthem "My Humps" -- or yelping "London Bridge," the off-color centerpiece of this solo debut from Peas singer Fergie -- has replaced the black-clad stoner in symbolizing pop's degradation of youth. Having invented (really, repopularized) the dirty nursery rhyme, this "positive" hip-hop crew has a lot to answer for.

"The Duchess" (in stores Tuesday), like the Peas' recent Fergiecentric hits, blends self-empowerment with blatant goods-pushing to present sexuality as a competitive sport. "My body stays vicious, I stay up in the gym working on my fitness," Fergie raps with appealing vulgarity. Later, she cries, "Would you love me if I didn't work out?" Don't answer, Romeo. She ain't going natural.

Inborn grace doesn't factor into Fergie's formula, especially with Peas mastermind will.i.am at the helm. Savvy overstatement is this flourishing producer's game as he reworks the soul classic "Get Ready" for "Here I Come" or electrocutes British retro-pop for the swoony "Velvet."

The reckless song structures are dizzying -- guest Rita Marley is wasted on "Mary Jane Shoes," which begins as funky reggae and inexplicably turns sorta punk -- but the ADHD affect can be fun, like eating a whole box of cookies.

The problem is the Duchess herself. Fergie exudes earthy charm, but can't keep up with the breakneck music. She forces emotion on the slower show-stoppers, and she's all cartoon kitten on the come-ons.

The exceptions are "Clumsy," in which she is specifically instructed to act all goofy and does, and, let's face it, "London Bridge," whose offensiveness (the phrase "me love you long time" must be banned from hip-hop's lexicon) only adds to its train-wreck allure. Shout at the devil, indeed.

Ann Powers

**

Sparkling brightly amid the darkness

Sparklehorse

"Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain"

(Astralwerks)

* * * 1/2

Melancholy has been no stranger to the music of Mark Linkous, a fragile genius whose three previous albums under the Sparklehorse name have made him one of indie rock's most acclaimed auteurs.

But his music has never been so shrouded in sorrow as it is on "Dreamt." Nor, paradoxically, has it ever been as comforting and uplifting. You can file it alongside another notable album about finding light in the darkness, "Electro-Shock Blues" by Eels (whose leader Mark Oliver Everett, like Linkous, hails from Virginia).

Due in stores Tuesday, "Dreamt" marries Linkous' Southern gothic woods-and-mountains imagery to an array of musical settings: searching, Lennon-like hymns, primal rockers, three grand adventures in collaboration with Gnarls Barkley's Danger Mouse. The album ends with a 10-minute instrumental meditation.

It's hard not to hear at least some of "Dreamt" as a reaction to the 2005 murders of Richmond, Va.-based musician Bryan Harvey, his wife and their two daughters. Linkous dedicates the album to them, and the welling emotion of the music and the violence and tenderness in the lyrics brings a rare intensity to the record.

"You can't put your arms around a ghost," he sings in "Some Sweet Day." That's one of several allusions to a spectral world that Linkous powerfully illuminates in his quest to transcend tragedy through surpassing beauty.

-- Richard Cromelin

**

Giving her all to the songs

Audra McDonald

"Build a Bridge" (Nonesuch)

* * 1/2

TO Audra McDonald, each song is a story to be not just told but lived. On "Build a Bridge" (in stores Sept. 26), the actress-concert performer applies this sensibility to pop. Though not just any pop. As she explained when she performed most of these numbers at Walt Disney Concert Hall in January, she was drawn to songs so rich in storytelling that they could have been written for the theater.

To begin, she turns her deliciously husky mezzo-soprano to the five-act drama "God Give Me Strength" by Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach. Vulnerability makes her sound tentative at first, but she builds incrementally, then leaps dramatically higher for a final cry to the heavens.

Backed by eloquently spare instrumentation, McDonald conversationally conveys the slap-to-the-forehead self-reproach of John Mayer's "My Stupid Mouth" and soars into the hard-won hope of Jessica Molaskey and Ricky Ian Gordon's "Cradle and All." The push-pull of indecisiveness creates a sense of suspense in Neil Young's letting-go-of-fear tune "My Heart"; quiet confidence is regained in Joe Raposo's "Bein' Green."

The 13 songs are united by a need to connect. Courage is found, chances are taken until, finally, all the old anxieties get washed away in Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going to Rain Today."

Is this is a crossover album? Not likely. But fans probably already have it on preorder.

Daryl H. Miller

**

One more time with enthusiasm

Kasabian

"Empire" (RCA)

* *

WHEN the newest wave of English rock started coming to the U.S. record store shindig in late 2004, each band represented a different archetype. Bloc Party represented the talented sensitive ones, the Futureheads the tightly wound intellectuals, Maximo Park the excitable romantics, Razorlight the hedonistic loudmouths, and so on.

With its debut, the members of Kasabian came across as the pseudo-deep thinkers who swore there was meaning in computerized texture and vague lyrical declarations.

Unfortunately, the next day no one could remember whether Kasabian had anything interesting to say, or even if the guys danced particularly well.

On its new album (in stores Tuesday), the quartet tries again, tossing in elements including psychedelic Middle Eastern flourishes and comedown acoustic guitar intros. It comes off as enthusiastic, if unfocused.

There is a momentum to songs such as "Last Trip (In Flight)" and "Stuntman," but none of the undercurrents of depravity that make such forebears as Primal Scream so captivating.

It may not be fair to rag on the group for picking the wrong decade to rip off, but right now Kasabian's allegiance to the '90s sounds especially uninspired.

Eric Ducker

**

Chingy's charm starts to wear thin

Chingy

"Hoodstar" (Capitol)

* * 1/2

ANY album that makes you lower your bass knob for fear of blowing your stock speakers demands attention. "Hoodstar" (in stores Tuesday) has an excellent roll call of producers, including Jermaine Dupri, Timbaland and Mannie Fresh, laying down bassy beats. But production alone doesn't make a good rap album.

This 26-year-old pop-rap sensation's 2003 debut, "Jackpot," sold nearly 3 million copies largely on the strength of his Midwest charm and dazzling style, which were directed at his BET-MTV teenage fan base. But 2004's "Powerballin' " fell far short of that mark, and "Hoodstar," which continues that formula with chronicles of girls, clothes, clubs and cars, isn't likely to reverse the trend.

The album's "Star" side is anchored by the Dupri-produced hit single "Pullin' Me Back," with Tyrese providing a smooth R&B; hook over Chingy's monotonous, laid-back flow and signature St. Louis accent. On the "Hood" side's crunk-heavy jam "Club Gettin' Crowded," Three 6 Mafia is wasted on Chingy's ghetto posturing.

If anything, Chingy has regressed since his debut, and his initially fresh style now sounds old. That leaves him hoping for another novelty hit and courting the young girls who are charmed by his looks.

Ben Quinones

**

Jazz return could be more joyous

Diana Krall

"From This Moment On" (Verve)

* * 1/2

AFTER venturing into original material in "The Girl in the Other Room," her highest-charting album, Krall returns to more familiar territory in this collection of standards. For jazz fans that would appear to be good news, but many of the tracks suggest that she may have left some of the familiar Krall spunkiness back in the other room.

Perhaps in an effort to avoid repeating past trips through Great American Songbook territory, perhaps simply to create a jazz comfort zone, she's accompanied on eight of the 11 tracks by the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra.

That too would appear to be good news, but the tunes that best recall her unique mixture of storytelling, swing, spirit and sensuality -- "Exactly Like You," "I Was Doing All Right" and "Little Girl Blue" -- are those in which she is backed by her quartet.

The exception is the dynamic big-band framework on "Come Dance With Me," which allows Krall to display jaunty, Fred Astaire-like phrasing. Other CHJO settings are musically imaginative without providing the supportive musical transparency that allows singers to sound their best. As a result, Krall sounds uncharacteristically bland and distracted.

It's nice to have her back in the jazz arena. But it's shame she doesn't seem to be having much fun with the return.

Don Heckman

*

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.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday September 24, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction Fergie album: A review in Sunday's Calendar section of Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie's debut solo album incorrectly gave the title as "The Duchess." It is "The Dutchess."
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