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Abra Moore
Strangest Places
Arista Austin

You might remember Abra Moore as the violin-toting co-founder of the airheaded bohemian-rock ensemble Poi Dog Pondering. But even if that's so, there's a good chance you've lost track of her since then. After abandoning Poi as the group was about to sign with Columbia (and then getting lost in the shuffle as one more casualty of major-label bidding wars), Moore settled in Austin, traded her violin for an acoustic guitar and went about refashioning her identity as a solo artist.

All things considered, Moore has to realize that what she's selling is far from unique. Her pillowy, precocious coo is a dead ringer -- delivery and all -- for Edie Brickell's. And she approaches the confessional singer/songwriter business with the sort of semidetached self-absorption that's been mined and refined repeatedly ever since Joni Mitchell made her impressionistic brooding public. Still, Moore's command of the pop vocabulary is undeniable, and her assimilation of her influences is immaculate -- almost unnervingly so.

Moore's latest CD, Strangest Places, is a vast leap in self-confidence from Sing, her tentative independent release of two years ago. Undoubtedly, this meticulously crafted effort is hit-hungry Arista Austin's attempt to dislodge Moore from the modest Americana niche and loft her into the hipper, more lucrative Alanis-sphere. Recorded with a sleek, sonically arresting punch by former Leonard Cohen guitarist Mitch Watkins (a regular Moore collaborator), Strangest Places is awash, and occasionally adrift, in plush production values, exacting musicianship and somewhat disorienting technical sophistication.

Fortunately, Moore's songs -- much like her molded porcelain features and ear-to-ear, schoolgirl grin -- are striking enough to withstand their heavy makeovers. The disc's first single, "Four Leaf Clover," is just one of Strangest Places' many radio-soluble offerings, its gnawing hook and deceptively giddy chorus inevitably committed to memory after a single listen. "Say It Like That," "All I Want" and "Don't Feel Like Cryin' " are as fundamentally catchy as they are studiously crafted. Nearly everything on Strangest Places -- and that includes more subtle tracks such as the bittersweet piano lullaby, "Happiness" -- resonates on some level, even while flaunting the fussed-over sheen of a major label's commercial ambitions. (*** 1/2)

-- Hobart Rowland

Mary J. Blige
Share My World
MCA

On the cover of her new CD Share My World, Mary J. Blige, wrapped in a fur-lapeled overcoat and Fendi sunglasses, strikes the pose of someone comfortable being utterly vainglorious. It's not surprising that she can pull the attitude off; well before the title was given to her, Blige possessed the look of a diva. It's even one of the reasons she's been such an enormous figure in pop music.

Unlike other contemporary chanteuses Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Madonna, all of whom had to pay hissy-fit dues in order to reach full divadom, Blige jumped into prima donna mode without flashing a single finely-manicured claw. It wasn't until this album that apparent egotism kicked in. An eager search for acceptance undercut the attitude on her 1992 debut What's the 411?, while thankful modesty subdued her 1994 follow-up My Life. But with Share My World, she's a full-fledged diva, and may god have mercy on the poor souls who don't accept it. The title of the album could have been Share My World ... Or Else!

What gives off this conceited vibe? Her self-congratulatory CD intro, for one. Before the title track kicks in, a godly voice, without any trace of irony, summons the listener to "feel the queen in her beautiful blackness." Previous collaborators Sean "Puffy" Combs and Andre Harell are gone this time around; in their place as producers she's got R&B royalty Babyface ("Missing You"), R. Kelly ("It's On"), and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis ("Love Is All We Need"). Even for die-hard Bligeheads, the songs produced by these kings might be too majestic. Still, there are always simple and satisfying numbers such as the title track, "Seven Days" and Blige's Waiting to Exhale anthem "Not Gon' Cry" to set things straight with the common folk.

Share My World might be Blige's most conspicuous ego trip yet, but at least she knows who she is and what she wants. To paraphrase that great Rat Pack line, "It's Mary's world, and we all just live in it." Or to paraphrase another great line, this one from street scholar Oran "Juice" Jones, "It's Mary's world and we're all just squirrels looking for a nut." Either way, it's still Mary's world. (*** 1/2)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Bruce Cockburn
The Charity of Night
Rykodisc

On much of his latest CD, The Charity of Night, Bruce Cockburn is looking for the light, whether that light comes from a new day, hope for the future or connections between people. Most of all, though, it seems the light he's seeking is that of personal inspiration while he muses over past accomplishments.

Though Cockburn's impassioned world-view and sincere social and environmental commentaries have long been chief among his endearing qualities, they've also prompted critics to accuse him of sounding "overpoliticized" and "heavy-handed." On this, his 23rd release, Cockburn spreads his political polemics and introspective monologues over a rich tableau of jazz and acoustic blues, coupling his familiar, nimble acoustic finger-styling with Rob Wasseman's smooth, gliding phrases on the fretless double bass. Lilting backup vocals by Patty Larkin, Jonatha Brooke, Maria Muldaur and Ani DiFranco add angelic resonance to the harmonies of the beckoning "Get Up Jonah," the ambling "Night Train" and "The Coming Rains." The addition of Gary Burton on vibes helps create a friendly jazz feel on the instrumental "Mistress of Storms," among other tracks. And on "The Whole Night Sky," Bonnie Raitt's buoyant slide guitar lifts the tune up off the ground.

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