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Soon enough, P.J. Harvey appears to engage Tricky in a deadpan duel on "Broken Homes," one of those price-of-fame songs written by musicians who became too famous too fast: "Success is killing," Harvey sings in a voice so flat and somnolent it's all but unrecognizable. "Murder is media / Forced laugh, forced autograph / First my body, now my corpse / Those men will break your bones." When "Broken Homes" fades out, "6 Minutes" bursts in, and suddenly the melancholy release turns jittery as Tricky croaks weary superstar catch phrases ("industry full of vomit," "the champagne's at the bar") over sneaky beats and snatches of guitar, piano and Martina's behind-the-curtain phantom vocals.

Meanwhile, "The Moment I Feared" (written by the Bomb Squad, PE's siren of sound) is breathless from the word go, proof Tricky can rap faster than a speeding bullet. But for all its swings, it barely lands a punch; Tricky's far better at long-distance pace than sprinting speed. (*** 1/2)

-- Robert Wilonsky

Billy Bragg and Wilco
Mermaid Avenue
Elektra

An unusual "collaboration" between a dead American songwriting legend, a British folk/punk socialist and a ragtag group of Americana rockers, Mermaid Avenue combines lyrics written by Woody Guthrie with music written by fellow travelers Billy Bragg and Wilco. Throughout his career, Bragg has shown a penchant for being heavy-handed and stiff, so it would seem that the loose and romping alterna-country of Wilco would be a good match. It is.

At the request of the Guthrie family, Bragg sifted through the various songs and song fragments composed by the folksinger during his long illness. What he and Wilco have come up with is fairly simple, not so much in deference to Guthrie's less-is-better philosophy but because neither has been about complexity in the first place. On Mermaid Avenue, acoustic and pedal steel guitar, fiddle, organ, piano and accordion define the music's rustic parameters, while Bragg's hearty British accent and Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy's lax, Chicago-meets-Memphis delivery fill in the rich details. Buoyed by Guthrie's raw materials, the group confidently maintains a jammy, hootenanny feel. And since Guthrie's populist folk is already part of the very fabric of American popular music, Mermaid isn't so much about dwelling on the past as it is about continuing down the path he cleared. Even serio-snoozer Natalie Merchant, who provides backing and the lead vocals on "Birds and Ships," can't kill the album's momentum.

Also refreshing is the way Mermaid Avenue doesn't get bogged down by weighty issues, presenting an array of moods. There are lust songs ("Ingrid Bergman"), vivid reminiscences ("Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key"), tales of personal longing ("California Stars"), even out-and-out goofs ("Hoodoo Voodoo"). Fueled by the power of hope and the crushing inevitability of failure, Guthrie's lyrics have always encompassed the idea that the American Dream is about everyone. Some 30 years after his death, that all-inclusive yearning still resonates. (****)

-- David Simutis

Various Artists
Bulworth: The Soundtrack
Interscope

Some soundtracks are so fine they deserve the success they receive -- Boomerang, Pulp Fiction and Above the Rim are prime examples. But those tend to be exceptions. Most are utterly expendable, and hip-hop/R&B soundtracks are often among the lamest.

As of this writing, no fewer than five movie-affiliated releases have taken up residence on the Billboard R&B charts, and one, in particular, is feeling the industry buzz: the rap companion piece to Warren Beatty's wiggy political satire, Bulworth. Soundtrack giantess Karyn Rachtman (Pulp Fiction, Boogie Nights) has assembled an impressive talent roster that includes Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, LL Cool J, Public Enemy and various Wu-Tang Clansmen. And with Wyclef Jean, Organized Noize, DJ Muggs and Terry Riley serving in various production capacities, Bulworth may well be the most touted hip-hop soundtrack of the year.

It also flaunts something practically none of the other soundtracks of its ilk have: artistic distinction. Much like the message-laden film in which some of its tracks appear, Bulworth: The Soundtrack boasts a commendable diversity of artists and subject matter. Current Cool J adversary Canibus teams up with World Music kingpin Youssou N'Dour on "How Come," a moody, introspective number for conspiracy theorists, while Method Man, KRS-One, and KAM and Mobb Deep's Prodigy team up to rip politics and the media on the title track. You can tell where Public Enemy is headed with "Kill 'Em Live" with one listen to Chuck D's bombastic lyrics ("Fuck the government / 'Cuz you know that I would").

Still, more fun-minded listeners need not be scared off. Dr. Dre and LL Cool J duet on "Zoom," one of those standard-issue, set-it-off type deals. There's also the praiseworthy efforts of newer talent -- in particular, Eve's edgy, riff-filled "Eve of Destruction," and Black Eyed Peas' potential house-party favorite "Joints and Jams." In its efforts to cover everything, Bulworth really is something. (*** 1/2)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

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

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