Granted, this isn't exactly a surprising direction for Harvey: increased atmospherics and shorter, less direct compositions. But the way in which she twists her postmodern experiments into songs keeps things unconventional. Again she teams up with producer Flood (Smashing Pumpkins, Depeche Mode), with whom she crafted 1995's To Bring You My Love. And she gets vocal assistance from dark princes Nick Cave and Tricky. But it's Harvey who provides the salient details, allowing the instrumentation to set the mood (most not-ably the mucky low-end of the bass guitar) while her amazing lungs pinpoint its direction.

But not all of Desire's pleasures are derived from Harvey's voice alone. When "My Perfect Leah," with its sparse, distorted synthetic rhythm and mechanical squeals, segues into the chiming guitars, live drums and gurgling bass of "A Perfect Day Elise," it's the sonic equivalent of opening the shades on a sunny day. Brilliant.

-- David Simutis

Better Than Ezra
How Does Your Garden Grow

It's been more than four years since Better Than Ezra's major-label debut, Deluxe, sold more than a million copies and made the New Orleans band 1994's somewhat more convincing version of this year's Matchbox 20. Chart-topping alterna-popsters with a penchant for emotional, hooky songs, BTE was striking out into a less well-charted territory back then, slugging it out with Oasis, Pearl Jam and Hootie to find some kind of middle ground between pure pop, grunge and frat-rock, and for the most part was succeeding. Deluxe's 1996 follow-up, Friction, Baby, was essentially more of the same, albeit with edgier production.

While 1998 finds most of their former chart-topping brethren still stuck in Clinton's less lively first term, Better Than Ezra mixes it up on How Does Your Garden Grow, gracefully avoiding the third-album jinx. This time out, the band recorded with producer Malcolm Burn (Iggy Pop, Patti Smith) in their own Fudge Studios. Burn's influence can be heard in BTE's freshly layered, vaguely electronic sound, but it's the songwriting that makes this album by far the group's most adventurous work.

Working with a supportive producer, and in a studio without a clock ticking off big dollars, BTE simply jammed away with the tape running, switched instruments a la Talking Heads and ended up with an album that veers all over the place stylistically as it stays true to the band's melodic rock roots. The first single, "One More Mur-der," was assembled from an hour-and-a-half workout that found the band indulging in a haunting piano intro, funky bass lines and Kevin Griffin's pensive, Bono-esque vocals. By contrast, "At the Stars" could be from any of the band's previous albums -- minus the tasteful strings. That might sound like good news for fans looking for more of the same. But for those looking for the band to grow up, Garden is a gaggle of eccentric odds and ends waiting to be unearthed.

-- Seth Hurwitz

John Mellencamp
John Mellencamp

One of the few mentionables in a long list of '80s holdovers, John Mellencamp has somehow managed to increase potency with age. At times, it seemed like the only thing keeping this headstrong Indiana anomaly going (aside from fried foods and nicotine, of course) was his sheer will to stay relevant. Bluntly put, Mellencamp has never been a natural. As late as 1983's Uh-Huh, his heartland hunk rock registered closer to John Cafferty than Bruce Springsteen in narrative depth. Still, that stubborn nature disguised as insolence back in his "Cougar" days has served him even better in later years.

Maybe it was the brush with death a few years past, or the simple process of aging (and the wisdom of hindsight that comes with it), but little Johnny has learned to be a man. And while he can still be an insufferable, overbearing hick on occasion, he's learned from his mistakes -- and through simple trial and error, he's learned how to be a decent songwriter. On, John Mellen-camp, his 15th album overall and his first for new label Columbia, he comes out swinging with some his most overtly political material since 1987's Lonesome Jubilee. But it's the less heavy-handed messages skewed toward more personal battles that hold the most weight.

"Well I look in the mirror, what the hell happened to me?" Mellencamp sings on "I'm Not Running Anymore," his voice grittier than ever. "Whatever I had has gone away / I'm not the kid I used to be." Granted, Mellencamp has addressed the dual issues of aging and mortality before, most prominently on Big Daddy and Human Wheels. But rarely has he attacked the subject with such a genuine urgency; it's as if just now he's reached some pivotal realization, and he's not sure if he likes what he sees ahead of him. Similarly, on "Your Life is Now," he slips perhaps a bit uncomfortably into the role of the concerned father intent on conveying all the beauty and tragedy of life to his offspring, sending them on their way prepared: "This is your time here to do what you will do / Your life is now."

Accompanied by the aching violin of Miriam Sturm and a chugging Stax-like chorus complete with a burping, synthesized horn section, "You're Time is Now" provides John Mellencamp's pointiest emotional peak. Too bad then, that it comes as early as track three. What's left is a meandering, vaguely metaphoric patchwork of fatalistic sloganeering and botched history lessons ("It All Comes True," "Eden Is Burning"), playful distractions of the flesh ("Miss Missy," "Break Me Off Some," "Summer of Love") and less convincing old-guy laments ("Where the World Began") -- all of it capped off by a somewhat half-hearted attempt at spiritual reconciliation ("Days of Farewell").

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