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"Lonely Soul" is, in fact, the album's brilliant touchstone. A nine-minute epic that makes the most of the London Session Orchestra, a quick-step backbeat and Ashcroft's meditations on dying "in a place that don't know my name," it crescendoes as the strings wipe the slate clean. Because it employs a variety of singers (there are three vocalists in addition to the big names), Psyence Fiction lacks consistency, but its recurring cast of characters helps maintain a compellingly weird continuity. One of the year's best.

-- David Simutis

Des'ree
Supernatural
550 Music

I risk catching flack for saying this, but it's true: Des'ree was doing the soulful existentialism thing before Erykah Badu lit her first incense stick. There, I said it.

Sure, the mystical Badu never slammed a song down your throat as incessantly as Des'ree did four years ago with "You Gotta Be." But with that one atrocious novelty number, Des'ree laid the groundwork for Badu and other exotic ingenues too numerous (and unpronounceable) to mention.

Des'ree is more like the foremother of new age soul than new soul, per se -- her boho lyrics are so achingly, disturbingly uplifting. Her filmic counterpart might well be something like Drew Barrymore, an unswayable optimist who tells cynics like yours truly to go, as one comedian recently put it, "take a big dip in Lake You."

With all that said, Des'ree's sophomore album, Supernatural, is just fluffy enough to be likable, with enough folky melodies and pacifist verse to stay wedged in heavy rotation in the VH1 jukebox for all of eternity. Indeed, Supernatural is an adult-contemporary radio listener's wet dream. If there are any rough edges, Des'ree keeps them neatly tucked away, like the wrinkles on Downtown Julie Brown's bum. She maintains a restrained sense of poetic purity throughout, her gossamer-winged vocal stylings never waning.

"I don't wanna see a ghost / It's a sight that I fear most / I'd rather have a piece of toast," she, coos, waxing empty on "Life." The dry ballad "I'm Kissing You" and the orchestral, seven-minute "Indigo Daisies" have her vocals flourishing amid a bare musical accompaniment. Light on pretension and heavy on hope, Des'ree has perfected on Supernatural what could be called peace pop. Ben and Jerry might even want to name a flavor after her. Des'ree Deluxe, perhaps?

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Clay Blaker
Rumor Town
Neobilly

Clay Blaker is one of the more successful songwriters to come out of Texas in the past 20 years. Yet, mention his name to anyone outside his south-central Texas home base or beyond the writing cliques in Nashville's Music Row, and you're liable to elicit a blank stare.

Blaker and George Strait are old buddies from the dance-hall circuit where they both came of age in the 1970s. Strait has cut seven of Blaker's tunes over the years, and in the recent past, Blaker's songwriting career has taken off as some of Nashville's biggest artists -- folks like Tim McGraw, LeAnn Rimes, Mark Chesnutt and Clay Walker -- have all included his songs on their releases.

But don't let those big names scare you into thinking that Rumor Town, Blaker's first release in five years, is loaded up with neo-country fluff. Though in the past, the singer/songwriter has leaned more toward western swing, here he delves into a rock-influenced brand of C&W that recalls the work of Foster & Lloyd, Jim Lauderdale and Kevin Welch, pulling off the likeness with charm to spare. Lauderdale is actually a featured presence on Rumor Town, lending his vocals to one track, the twang-filled ballad "I May Be a Fool," while co-writing three others, including "It's Only 'Cause You're Lonely," a honky-tonk-flavored ditty with a big beat and some fine steel-guitar work from Blaker's longtime partner Tommy Detamore.

Despite considerable success as a writer, Blaker can't escape the rush of performing live, and he and his Texas Honky Tonk Band continue to slug it out on regional stages on a weekly basis. Let's hope that Rumor Town's approachable combination of heart and grit will bring his talent as a bandleader to a wider audience.

-- Jim Caligiuri

The Jazz Passengers
Live in Spain
32 Jazz

Forget, for the moment, your Alanis, your Fiona, your Courtney or any other '90s alternative whiner. The simple truth is, none of them can hold a candle to what Debbie Harry did with Blondie 20 years ago. One of new wave's most commercially viable bands, Blondie combined a pop sensibility and musical versatility with Harry's seductive voice and Playboy Bunny good looks. A tremendous vocalist, Harry fit naturally into every musical context Blondie pursued, whether it was power pop, '60s girl group cutesiness, disco, reggae or rap.

Since Blondie's breakup, Harry's output had been mostly of the dance-music variety until she hooked up with the Jazz Passengers on last year's Individually Twisted CD. Fronted by saxophonist Roy Nathanson and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, the Jazz Passengers have an avant-garde sound that might be compared to Charles Mingus and Sun Ra collaborating on a comedy soundtrack. A versatile performer, Harry sings jazz well enough to ride along with the Passengers, which is why Individually Twisted probably got better reviews than it deserved. But once that novelty wears off, the Jazz Passengers just aren't happening, as Live in Spain demonstrates. Cacophonous, rambling and rarely engaging, Live in Spain is more noise and less swing -- boring dissonance, if you will. Harry's voice is often deliberately frail, with a tiny and tinny sound. Imagine a movie starlet trying her (weak) hand at the standards, except that these aren't standards. Only on the dramatic "When the Fog Lifts" does Harry really show off her pipes.

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