Natalie Merchant

Don't be fooled by the perky, provocative "na, na, na"s and pillowy backbeat of "Kind and Generous," the first single from Natalie Merchant's second solo effort, Ophelia. That song's beaming enthusiasm is nothing but a tease on an album that spends much of its time carefully negotiating the line between drama and drowsiness. Still, Merchant regularly finds a way to blow away the pretentious fog with her opulent, treacly voice. At least the former Maniac knows how to bring us down in style.

Setting the stage for a journey through Merchant's imagination, the title track introduces a cast of characters -- a blushing bride, a "blue-stocking" suffragette, a circus performer, a mistress, a "sweetheart to a nation" -- before spinning out into a dreamy, barely audible mist of various voices speaking in Russian, French, Italian, Spanish and German. Otherworldly references include the haunting "Effigy," which pairs Merchant's unmistakable coo with Yungchen Lhamo's Tibetan chants, and her contemporary spin on the 19th-century French hymn "When They Ring the Golden Bells."

While lush arrangements provide an inviting atmosphere, it's the subtle touches that carry lasting power. Daniel Lanois's silky, gorgeous guitar lines weave in and out of "Thick as Thieves," while the melancholy trumpet that colors "Break Your Heart" perfectly captures the aura of redemption in its words. "King of May" emerges gloriously from its somberness into the daylight, hailing "raise your voices up, lift your loving cup to his long life" in a paean to a simple man's passing. A somber step to the right from 1995's more free-spirited Tigerlily, Ophelia is as strikingly beautiful as it is dangerous. (*** 1/2)

-- Melissa Blazek

George Strait
One Step at a Time
MCA Nashville

On One Step at a Time, the father of the new traditionalist movement and arguably country's brightest star (sorry, Garth) coins another winning collection of Texas swing, slow and tender ballads and two-step shuffles. It's exactly what Strait fans have come to want -- and expect -- from the veteran, deep-voiced Mr. Nice Guy.

Just as every album-cover portrait of the artist since 1981's Strait Country has remained uncanny in its similarities to the last (all variations on a blandly smiling Strait wearing a variety of Resistol hats and well-ironed duds), his music remains just what you expect. And that is, of course, Strait's biggest strength -- and his most pronounced weakness.

A carefree cover, "I Just Want to Dance with You," opens One Step at a Time; other highlights include the Spanish-inflected Robert Earl Keen number "Maria," the paean to romance "True" and "Remember the Alamo," with lyrics that neatly turn the famous battle cry into a lover's urgent remembrance. But when Strait picks up the pace with the Jim Lauderdale-penned "We Really Shouldn't Be Doing This," the effect is jarring. You wish he'd cut loose with peppier material a bit more often.

Strait is less successful playing the jilted lover ("That's the Breaks," "Neon Row"). Maybe it's because his voice modulates pain the same way it does every other emotion in the spectrum -- or because nobody could picture a woman actually fool enough to walk out on him. One Step at a Time doesn't break any new ground in Strait's cast-iron string of hit releases -- nor does it intend to. And that's just fine all around. (*** 1/2)

-- Bob Ruggiero

George Strait performs Sunday, June 7, at Rice Stadium.

Big Calm

Skye Edwards has a voice that oozes and forms around a song's structure like candle wax, exhibiting the power, control and confidence that defines a star in the making. Around her, Big Calm's whirlpool of wistfully psychedelic dance music ebbs and flows, upping the stakes for trip-hop. Morcheeba are alternately breathing life into and stretching the boundaries of electronic soul music -- speeding up the beats per minute, and mixing in Ross Godfrey's bluesy, funky keyboards, pedal steel guitar and generally upbeat mood. The mood is happy, celebratory and rich in atmosphere.

What you don't get on Big Calm is anything resembling sterility -- or that cold feeling that the music was hammered out on machines. There's a definite pulse behind Morcheeba's warm, acoustic guitars and Edwards's sultry, laid-back singing. On "Part of the Process," the groove builds slowly -- with snaking slide guitar and whip-snap drumming -- before Edwards swoops in with the chorus. An unexpected twist comes in the form of a violin, lifting the song to a more pop-oriented plateau.

Not that Big Calm doesn't have its lulls. "Friction," with its pseudo-reggae beat and dreary toasting, is plodding and out of place -- a pandering attempt at mixing things up when what Morcheeba already has going is interesting enough. By contrast, on "Over and Over," it's just Edwards, a little orchestration and acoustic guitar, proving that sometimes, all the band need do is supply its would-be diva with a little backup and let her do her thing. (***)

-- David Simutis

Dwight Yoakam
A Long Way Home

Various Artists
Will Sing for Food -- The Songs of Dwight Yoakam
Little Dog

There's no denying it: Dwight Yoakam has set the bar for real modern country, hitting heights that he and everyone else must strive to achieve if they're looking to make more than commercial, country-pop pabulum or barely country alt-country. He's recorded at least two undeniably great albums -- the stunningly lush twang-fest This Time and the retrofitted classic Gone -- and has forged a consistently impressive oeuvre since hitting the scene more than a decade ago. Sure, Under the Covers, last year's quirky collection of cover tunes, was an either-you-like-it-or-you-don't affair. But Yoakam remains one of the best proofs that genuine country can still thrive.

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