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Natalie Merchant
Ophelia
Elektra

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.

Morcheeba
Big Calm
Sire

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
Reprise

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.

So while the new A Long Way Home may not qualify as a high point, it's still a fine Yoakam release. Singer and band have attained a well-oiled professionalism; the familiar tricks and Yoakam's heartbroken whine remain a patented delight. As you'd expect, he delivers lots of sadness, and a full measure of drama on everything from stone-cold weepers to flat-out rootsy rockers. Hints of bluegrass inform "Traveler's Lantern" and the title track. And as if to bring it all back home, the album is topped off with Dwight doing Elvis on "Maybe You Like It, Maybe You Don't," which sounds as if it could be a lost Sun sessions outtake. As always, Yoakam taps the spirit of genuine C&W greatness.

Alas, Will Sing for Food -- which finds 13 artists covering Yoakam songs to benefit the homeless -- is a different matter. Tribute albums are far too overdone to matter much anymore, and strangely, this one is less a tribute to the songs than to the artist himself. That's because most of the tracks have nothing on their original counterparts, making it that much more apparent what a sharp stylist Yoakam is. Only Bonnie Bramlett-Sheridan (half of the now sadly forgotten Delaney and Bonnie) brings anything different to the table; her take on "What I Don't Know" is deep-fried in the juices of Memphis R&B, and sung with a brassy, unbridled verve. On a similar, if somewhat lesser, note, Tim O'Brien brings an ethereal mountain-music feel to "A Thousand Miles from Nowhere" and Pete Droge gives "One Thousand Miles" a cool rockist slant.

Otherwise, only the young Austin band Reckless Kelly manages to match Yoakam's trademark panache. Meanwhile, otherwise vital artists such as David Ball, Kim Richey (who is backed here by Mandy Barnett on "Near You"), the Lonesome Strangers and Gillian Welch offer nothing revelatory nor all that listenable. And that's not much of a tribute at all. A Long Way Home (*** 1/2); Will Work for Food (** 1/2)

-- Rob Patterson

The Connells
Still Life
TVT

By most accounts, Ring was supposed to be the Connells' last gasp after almost a decade as the South's second-string R.E.M. That was five years ago. And by now, the durable North Carolina outfit's repeated claims of inevitable disbandment are about as believable as the O.J. verdict. That's fine with the quintet's fans, many of whom reside an ocean away.

Founded back in 1984 by brothers David and Mike Connell, the Connells have reaped a fair share of critical praise, but their brainy, unimposing formula has also been ignored, dismissed and largely taken for granted. Lately, such professional heartbreaks have been compounded by a pair of personal setbacks: Last year, lead singer Doug MacMillan required surgery for an intestinal ailment (he has since fully recovered); and, most recently, bassist David Connell lost his wife to a long illness.

But unlike 1996, with its dreary, encumbered Weird Food and Devastation CD and equally lifeless tour, 1998 finds the Connells in a decidedly upbeat mindset. And to celebrate, they've just uncorked Still Life, album number seven of lyrically obtuse, fundamentally catchy, diametrically durable folk-and-rock-leaning pop -- and not a live album or greatest hits collection in the lot. But then, the closest the group has come to a hit was " '74'75," which caught on huge in Europe some two years after its release on Ring. Boasting perhaps the band's most stunning melody line in a career full of them, and lyrics furbished with colorful, if cryptic, scrapbook remembrances, the song might have fared better here if it hadn't been forced to compete with the Singles soundtrack, among other things Seattle.

But today, with grunge's threat pretty much out of the way and craftier pop acts logging hits (think Semisonic, Fastball), the door may have opened a crack for the Connells. And, as with all the group's albums since its frenzied 1986 debut, Darker Days, Still Life abounds with hooks of the sort you'd have to be under sedation not to appreciate.

Sharp craftsmanship dominates Still Life, from the signature Connells' ascending-descending chord progression and bulky Hammond B-3 enhancement of the leadoff "Dull, Brown and Gray" (a bracing, minor-key lament plopped, oddly enough, in a hazy Civil War-era dreamscape) to the bouncy, infectious "Curly's Train" (about a near brush with disaster on a Scottish auto-train) to the no-frills college rock and canny self-analysis of "The Leper" and "Still Life." Particularly poignant is the latter, with a piano intro seemingly on loan from Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and a memorable chorus that hinges on the lucid assertion, "This still life has its virtues / 'Cause everything in motion leaves or is just left behind" -- which guitarist/songwriter Mike Connell insists came to him in his sleep.

As sharp-witted and quality-minded as ever, the Connells seem unable to make a lousy album, even if they haven't made a truly great one since, well, Ring. But this time around, the group is actually anticipating Still Life's follow-up. Self-proclaimed career pessimists, the Connells finally may be realizing that a little positive thinking can go a long way. Let's just hope the bank is en route this time. (***)

-- Hobart Rowland

Press Ratings
***** Historic
**** Great
*** Worthy
** So-so
* Lame

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