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The disc is structured as one long love letter composed of kisses and hugs to fans, friends, loved ones and, most of all, herself. It serves as a fine companion piece to her autobiography, Don't Block the Blessings. The CD even ends with a track called "Don't Block the Blessings," which makes for a satisfyingly cathartic coda.

Still, as good as Flame is, it's only part of the LaBelle experience. Watching her whoop it up in concert ought to clue you in to the bigger picture -- either that, or jolt you right out of your seat. (***)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Patti LaBelle performs at 8 p.m. Friday, November 7, at the Arena Theatre.

Robbie Fulks
South Mouth
Bloodshot

Buddy Miller
Poison Love
HighTone

Robbie Fulks's second release for Chicago's "insurgent country" label, Bloodshot Records, is built on the wonderful hard-country sound of Missouri's legendary roots outfit the Skeletons, who come off here like something approaching the world's greatest country band. What makes South Mouth truly special, though, is Fulks's generally fine songwriting. I say "generally" because some of Fulks's offerings are admittedly slight. All but ready for covering by the lamest-hatted hunk, "Good-bye Good-Lookin' " and "Dirty-Mouthed Flo" sound like they could be among the "dumb-ass songs" that Fulks himself slams in the too-easy, self-congratulating, anti-Nashville anthem "Fuck This Town."

Still, when he's on his game, Fulks is hard to beat. His Louvin Brothersstyled "South Richmond Girl" is a hard-working husband/cheating-wife murder ballad that winds up destroying not only the man on death row but his grown son -- the latter crying on the other side of the bars. "Forgotten But Not Gone" is a quavering testament to lost love that sounds like a newly discovered Jack Greene masterpiece, and the fragile, stripped-down "You Wouldn't Do That to Me" is an attempt at self-denial so exquisite that George Jones should record it ASAP. Even Fulks's more "dumb-ass" moments ("I'm a sucker for low-cut tops" he tells one woman -- as if that will win her heart) are delivered with such a twang-solid, honky-tonk backing that most objections fly immediately away on pedal-steel wings.(PPP 1/2)

Recorded on the original alternative country label, Oakland's HighTone Records, Buddy Miller's sophomore effort offers a less tradition-bound version of great country music than Fulks's -- which simply means that it rocks as hard as it twangs. Miller's phrasing, both lyrically and vocally, owes much to another country-rock rebel, Steve Earle (who duets with Miller on the title cut, a version of the 1951 Johnnie and Jack hit), and the musicians that back Miller here often sound as if Earle's own Dukes had unplugged and added a fiddle.

But where Earle is as likely to place his story songs in a wider context of class inequality, Miller is generally content to write with wisdom and craft about love's unex-pected joys and its confused aftermaths. When Miller paces a lonely shore in "Draggin' the River," his metaphor captures the messy, pain-in-the-gut feeling that's usually missing in even the best heartbreak songs. On the other hand, when he joins voices with his wife, Judy, on "Love Snuck Up," he's smart enough to know that metaphor is unnecessary; the sheer, breathless joy of their harmonies says it all. (****)

-- David Cantwell

Busta Rhymes
When Disaster Strikes...
Elektra

If Busta Rhymes were ever in the running to play a comic-book villain, it would most certainly be the Riddler. Can't you just imagine this maniacal hip-hopper prancing about, twirling a Plexiglas cane, a big, flashing question-mark on the front of his derby?

With the zest-ridden urgency of a jester searching for his royal court, Busta Rhymes has unleashed another arsenal of bombastic verbal twisters on When Disaster Strikes..., dispatching hard-core flights-of-fancy that can only be described as beyond whimsical. The in-your-face bravado of his 1996 debut, The Coming, is here, though it's occasionally toned down in favor of a few more experimental pitches. On the title track, for instance, Busta delivers a verbal flow similar to what might have resulted if George Jessel had turned to rapping.

Throughout Disaster, Busta manages to sound off in ways both capricious and threatening, his idle boasts often morphing into moments of pure goofiness. While Busta goes off on his rants, the producers successfully transform the music into a larger-than-life force all its own. D.J. Scratch's ass-blasting beats match Busta's madcap form to a T, and Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs lends his signature overachieving touch to the mix with "The Body Rock." Busta himself even lays down a couple of choice backing tracks, including "Turn It Up," a wild-and-woolly number that samples Al Green's "Love and Happiness," and the obligatory I'm-down-with-my-homies anthem, "There's Not a Problem My Squad Can't Fix."

All boasting aside, Busta Rhymes celebrates a trait that most rappers are too self-absorbed to acknowledge: giddy, unchecked enthusiasm. Even when he's supposed to be playing the hard guy, nothing, it seems, can stop Busta from bouncing off the walls. He may insist he's a street-tough force to be reckoned with, but deep down, he's Silly Putty. (*** 1/2)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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