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But Castle's real revelation is how the militancy of her music has been so effectively mitigated, a delightful byproduct, one would think, of her hard-won popularity and increasing artistic maturity. So while the observations in her songs can still be dour, her more playful musical approach leavens that negativity quite nicely -- and that's not to mention a burgeoning groove thang. Sure, Ani continues to tell it like it is in the best folk tradition, but a spoonful of pop sugar helps the reality go down.

So even if it really isn't a lipsticked kiss-off to her tougher-minded past, Little Plastic Castle does reveal a lighter, more accessible Ani DiFranco. To be sure, success has been the ruination of some of our most cherished musical activists. But it can also be a balm for the wounds that bleed great art, a source of assurance that allows an artist to dive deeper and soar higher. Here, the latter seems to be the case, which bodes well for DiFranco's continued presence as one of the rare honest voices for a confused -- if not thoroughly lost -- generation. (*** 1/2)

-- Rob Patterson

The LOX
Money, Power and Respect
Bad Boy/Arista

Did I miss something? With all the mammoth praise heaped upon the LOX, Sean "Puffy" Comb's newest hip-hop proteges, and their debut CD, Money, Power and Respect, I was expecting something fresh, something innovative, something -- well -- revolutionary. Silly me.

Money, Power and Respect doesn't fully disappoint, mind you. But it ain't no Straight Outta Compton, either.

At least, of all the artists from Puff Daddy's Bad Boy stable, the LOX are the least willing to compromise their hard-earned ghetto vitality. Consider the other contenders: Mase attempts to nab audiences with his hip-hop bon vivant persona; Total are little more than En Vogue in swap-meet leather; and 112 await Boyz II Men's unlikely fall from favor to stake their territory. The LOX, on the other hand, are the real deal, hard-core New York roughnecks who prefer their Moët in an empty mayonnaise jar.

That said, Power, Money and Respect still ain't all that it could be. Seven tracks into the disc, you realize that there will be no gut-wrenching climax. There are some exceptional, hard-partying beats, but isn't that what everyone says these days about rap efforts that barely dodge mediocrity? Money opens predictably with your standard turf-establishing intro ("Yonkers' Tale"), then delves into the mandated playa/balla/mack-daddy territory. Songs range from the oddly familiar ("Livin' the Life" has a Wu-Tangish flavor) to the halfhearted ("I Wanna Thank You" is catchy but lacks conviction) to the needlessly misogynistic ("Bitches from Eastwick").

Nonetheless, by Bad Boy standards, Money is hip-hop at its most visceral and direct, with Combs and his posse of producers keeping the sample-happy studio dressing to a minimum. That stripped-down approach rings most true on "Goin' Be Some Sh*t," "The Heist" and the title track, all of which boast a hot-wired, gangland-style weightiness that's hard to resist. There are times, even, when the LOX seem as if they resent their lavish, Puff Daddy connection ... almost. (***)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Jerry Jeff Walker
Cowboy Boots and Bathin' Suits
Tried & True Music

After more than 30 years of making music, Jerry Jeff Walker shows no signs of slowing down. And why should he? His voice still possesses that fine whiskeyed smoothness, and he's still capable of writing a tune that can win your heart in more ways than one.

To that effect, Cowboy Boots and Bathin' Suits, the Texas singer/songwriter's 29th release, is an entertaining trip south that is sure to please fans. Recorded on an island off the coast of Belize, Walker's Central American home away from home, it attempts to capture the easygoing existence and natural beauty of that Caribbean hideaway. To establish the laid-back vibe, Walker recorded a handful of tracks live, in front of small audiences at local establishments.

Given the tropical setting, it's not surprising that Cowboy Boots at times approximates the carefree novelty appeal of Walker's old pal Jimmy Buffett. The grab bag of old and new includes two charming originals, "Come Away with Me to Belize" and the title track. Meanwhile, Walker's band, the Gonzo Compadres, add their own impassioned touch to covers from longtime friends Guy Clark ("Boats to Build"), Eric Von Schmidt ("Champagne Don't Hurt Me Baby") and Fred Neil (a Cowboy medley includes "Everybody's Talkin' "). There's also an interesting reworking of "Sloop John B." and an appropriately rocking version of Robert Parker's classic "Barefootin." So settle back, mix up the margaritas and slip this one in the CD player; Jerry Jeff's back, fisherman's tan and all. (***)

-- Jim Caligiuri

Hum
Downward Is Heavenward
RCA

Downward Is Heavenward, Hum's fourth release, provides more of the same gauzy, guitar-based mood rock we've come to expect from this noisy Illinois quartet -- which is a shame. "Comin' Home," the first single, begins on a bright note but quickly degenerates into a grungy noise fest. "Green to Me" and "The Scientists" suffer similarly formulaic fates.

All of which seems to indicate that Hum is settling into a routine, rather than setting the pace for lesser bands of their amp-smoking ilk. Granted, there are moments when the band is gunning for more; those bouts of sonic experimentation still result in unexpected twists, sudden eruptions of feedback and bizarre computerized special effects. But the music's incessant pounding tends to overwhelm those variations. As it stands, the occasional lulls in Hum's multilayered maelstrom hold the most romance on Downward Is Heavenward. It just goes to show that sometimes a hum is better than a racket. (**)

-- Sande Chen

Hum performs Friday, March 13, at Fitzgerald's.

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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