A focused beam of dark

Marilyn Manson

Eat Me, Drink Me (Interscope)

* * * *

LOVE is heavier than hate. Personalized subject matter adds weight to Marilyn Manson's penetrating new statement (in stores Tuesday), which strikes especially deep in belated sequel to the overamped exhaustion of 2003's "The Golden Age of Grotesque."

The shock lord's collaboration with Tim Skold (formerly of KMFDM) has matured, and at 38, so has Manson. Not since "Mechanical Animals" (1998) has he stared within so unblinkingly; the focus pays off in conflicted, nuanced singing that makes some of his past rage sound rote. The songs too are sculpted from the darkest stone with special care.

The first seven cuts of "Eat Me, Drink Me" (an offer once extended to Jesus' disciples and to Lewis Carroll's Alice) converge into a master suite of crushed romance.

"If I Was Your Vampire" sets the measured pace with a bell-tolling guitar riff and a lyric equating love with death. The Weimar balladry at which Manson excels is further represented by "They Said Hell's Not Hot" ("It was never about her, it was about hurt"), the beer-hall torch waltz "Just a Car Crash Away," and the textured title lament that closes the sepulcher.

Mutant reggae makes surprising entrances on the powerfully massing "The Red Carpet Grave," with its dual-edged refrain "I can't turn my back on you," and on the spring-driven "Heart Shaped Glasses," whose bloody-joyride video is the first from the album. Amid all the glory, though, "Putting Holes in Happiness," with its Neil Young plod, rising-falling guitar obbligato and desperate will to rock, stands out as one of Manson's greatest songs.

Previous Manson guitarists will envy the solo space allotted Skold; a number of exceptional ax workouts perfectly reflect moods that range from mounting pride to roiling anguish to moaning abjection.

A most satisfying repast.

-- Greg Burk


Dion assures us all is swell

Celine Dion


* *

ON her last French-language album, 2003's folky "1 Fille & 4 Types," Celine Dion did what all superstar singers feel they must once in a while, stripping her big-ballad pop-rock of its Las Vegas glitz and emphasizing her Everydiva roots. Evidently convinced that her humanity has been secured, Dion returns to her usual mode on "D'Elles," where, as on her English-language CDs, no tune is complete without a sweeping string arrangement or a generous helping of synthesizer cheese.

As fun as it was to hear Dion do the jeans-and-T-shirt thing, it's good to have her back in a sparkly evening gown: With its careful quaver and skyscraping swoops, Dion's singing is much more attuned to melodramatic material such as "Le Temps Qui Compte" than to the down-home ruminations of "1 Fille"; this 18-wheeled voice requires a garage, not a carport.

Although critics complain about Dion's weakness for meaningless bombast, bombast is in fact the only meaning Dion has to offer. Like recent work by Madonna or Barbra Streisand, this music is about power. In every song, Dion allows the arena-schmaltz atmospherics to threaten her center-stage dominance. Then, just in time, she beats back the violins with a trademark shriek.

-- Mikael Wood


More tales of drugs and violence

Kurupt & J. Wells

"Digital Smoke" (Bonzi Records)

* * 1/2

IF Dr. Dre is the father of West Coast gangster rap, then J. Wells is a distant nephew in the family tree. Raised in Pacoima, by way of Chicago, J. Wells sold thousands of copies of his two previous albums independently, often out of the trunk of his car along the streets of Hawthorne, Inglewood and Compton.

Wells has a nondescript rhyme style, covering the usual themes: vivid descriptions of high-quality marijuana, his gangsta-rap pedigree. Wells crafts his own beats, which adhere closely to a fundamentalist ideal of West Coast hip-hop: highly polished tracks, heavily doused with Funkadelic-style vocals, such as Kokane's pimp-song on the Rakim homage "I Came in the Door."

He coaxes good performances out of his featured guests. On the lyrically substantive origin story, "Los Angeles," his hook singer, Samuel "Shawty" Christian, strikes a balance between grit and tenderness. Then on "I'm Too Gangsta," Styliztik Jones outshines Kurupt and his wife, Gail Gotti, with his dense lyrics: "Collar bones poppin' /Way out of socket / Pay out of pocket."

Despite these interesting moments, "Digital Smoke" lacks vision and individuality, so it remains a mere mix-tape that only aspires to be a bona fide album.

-- Serena Kim


Albums are rated on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star (poor). Albums reviewed have been released, unless otherwise indicated.

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