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Alanis Morissette
Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie
Maverick/Reprise

When all was said and done, Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill snagged four Grammys, sold a staggering 28 million copies worldwide, spawned five multi-format hit singles in the United States, and thrust her into the position of the symbolic saint for angry young women everywhere. Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, Pill's much anticipated follow-up, shows that Morissette not only avoided being artistically damaged by the experience, but she actually learned something in the process (maybe even the proper use of the word "ironic").

Once again guided by co-producer/co-writer Glen Ballard, the 17-song Junkie is subtly flavored with a musical mixture of atmospheric rock bombast, unsettling ballads, hip-hop lite, and a slight waft of Middle Eastern and Latin scents -- and it either dances dangerously on the precipice of being painfully overwrought or is bravely ambitious, depending on what sort of aftertaste you were left with when Jagged Little Pill's run was over. Lyrically, the collection captures Morissette's floating-above-the-room observations on social ("I Was Hoping") and cultural ("Baba") misperceptions and showcases the growing depth of her narrative skills ("Sympathetic Character," "The Couch"). At times, however, her atypical phrasings, occasionally verbose story lines and sinewy vocal gymnastics send the Zen-ish tales down a craggy path, one that takes some work (and probably a stiff drink) to traverse.

At 25, Morissette's been immersed in the adult world for most of her life (she had a regular television series gig at age ten and a publishing deal at 14, followed by a smash Canadian mall-pop album -- all before Pill was conceived when she was but 20), and it shows, eerily, in the themes she addresses. On Junkie, her personal drive is illuminated -- in an almost spiritual light -- at every turn, and where Pill was youthfully defiant, Junkie steps back and examines the repercussions of that rebelliousness. When her taut salvos of "Are you still mad I kicked you out of bed? Are you still mad I gave you ultimatums?" eventually melt into a deliciously haunting chorus of "... of course you are" in "Are You Still Mad," there's a clear sense that Morissette's won -- in more ways than one.

-- Melissa Blazek

Beck
Mutations
Bongload/Geffen

Mutations is the follow-up to Odelay that isn't. In music business lingo, that means: "It doesn't sound like the last album, we don't hear a hit, so don't count on any big promotional blitz."

Twisted industry logic aside, unexpected shifts in direction ought to be the norm for idiosyncratic artists of Beck's lineage. And in that respect, Mutations doesn't disappoint. Recorded in two weeks with co-producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead's OK Computer) and a live band, Mutations is considerably more simple and direct than Odelay. Opting for baroque accents such as sitars, harpsichords and drunken trombones, our more forthright boy-man chameleon is in fine voice throughout as he flaunts his knack for minor-key pop melodies. Befitting the overall somber feel of the music, Mutations is awash in dreary images of plagues, funerals, graveyards and psychic dead ends.

Oddly enough, the shadow of the Beatles looms large on Mutations. In the past, Beck's mix-and-match roots embraced the blues and more obscure inspirations. Though Mutations doesn't completely eschew the exotic, the vocal phrasing, droning sitars and psychedelic keyboards are pure Rubber Soul. Indeed, the wait for Beck to bust loose into weirder territory can be frustrating. He finally does so on "Tropicalia." Named after the 30-year-old Brazilian musical movement led by Tom Ze, this nifty oddity, with its playful horns and squiggly keyboard runs, is really the only instance where Beck doesn't restrain the funkmeister within. Something of a one-dimensional experience, Mutations is nonetheless solid and well-crafted. Still, it may leave you craving the off-the-wall, break dancing genius that inspired Odelay.

-- David Simutis

Alan Jackson
High Mileage
Arista Nashville

Attention, all you aspiring young country bucks: Never mind the advice of managers, publicists and groupies; Alan Jackson's High Mileage is the perfect textbook primer on what to include on your maiden recording effort. Begin with a "gee -- our love is great, ain't it?" number ("Right on the Money"), and toss in a "pacin' the floor over you" ditty ("Gone Crazy"). Don't forget the obligatory "I sure do miss the good old days" track ("Little Man") and, of course, the "I'll keep on loving you" clincher ("I'll Go On Loving You"). But be forewarned: You'll find that most of the material on Alan Jackson's latest is as dry and dull as a textbook.

Chock full of cliches, too-earnest-to-be-earnest vocals and trite-'n'-tepid instrumentation, High Mileage never locks into gear. And Jackson, as most fans would agree, is capable of considerably more shit-kickin' joy. That much is evident on the album's two best tracks, "A Woman's Love" and the hilarious "man, I sure got fucked up last night" lament entitled "Another Good Reason," in which our intrepid hero, under the influence of demon alcohol, gets into piles of trouble.

For those who've gone cyber-country, High Mileage does have plenty of enhanced computer functions (video clips, bio, links). But, all in all, the music -- despite some downright hummable choruses -- fails to deliver. In the country-hunk wagon train that is Jackson's oeuvre, High Mileage rates passage on the chuck wagon -- in the bin with the leftovers.

-- Bob Ruggiero

Shawn Mullins
Soul's Core
Columbia

Shawn Mullins is an unlikely one-hit wonder. After a stint in the army, he recorded six albums on his own label, carving out a loyal, if small, fan base from nine years of slogging it out on the listening-room circuit with cultish troubadours such as John Gorka and Billy Pilgrim. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, an Atlanta radio station put "Lullaby" into heavy rotation, and the phone calls from major labels started coming in.

Mullins's talky paean to growing up in Los Angeles on the fringes of the entertainment industry, "Lullaby" straddles the line between pop and folk. With its drum-machine rhythm, playful keyboards and ultra-hooky chorus -- in which Mullins promises, in a wistful falsetto, that everything is gonna be all right -- the tune is more Don Henley than Bob Dylan.

Consider that the exception. Most of Soul's Core, Mullins's major-label debut and actually a reissue of his last indie release (plus a bonus track), is closer in form to the folk and country acts he cites as influences. On "The Gulf of Mexico," which hinges on a relatively spare guitar/drums/piano arrangement, he tells parallel stories of a waitress stuck in a bad marriage who dreams of freedom, and of himself caught in his musician's life on the road. (In true singer/songwriter fashion, the author reveals that he took the words from a journal entry he wrote in the Floribama parking lot.) But while Mullins's pretty, meticulously produced story-songs recall artists such as Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, they lack the incisive sentiment, ragged edges and raw, emotional content that characterize the best music of those artists.

It's a credit to Mullins that Soul's Core rarely sounds like a folkie struggling to go electric. But it may be a problem for those whose experience with folk extends beyond the shallow likes of Jewel.

-- Seth Hurwitz

Various Artists
Let's Be Frank: A Tribute to Frank Sinatra
Hip-O Records

Frank Sinatra was at his peak during one of the great periods of American songwriting, at a time when the American popular standards were being penned by the likes of Jimmy Van Heusen, Sammy Cahn, Johnny Mercer and Cole Porter. So while a number of standards have come to be synonymous with Sinatra, in most cases there are several other great versions out there.

Hence the overall quality of Let's Be Frank, which compiles 16 songs made famous by Sinatra as recorded by other artists. Calling this a tribute album is a bit of stretch, as all the performances were recorded decades ago, and some of the performers -- Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington -- have been dead for years. But while one can quibble over the merits of compiling a bunch of previously released songs, it's hard to dispute the relevance of Fitzgerald's belting out "(Love Is) the Tender Trap," or Louis Armstrong and Oscar Peterson's toying with "Just One of Those Things," or Mel Torme's crooning "The Second Time Around." Other standouts: Chet Baker's classic, cool interpretation of "My Funny Valentine," and a young Lou Rawls covering "It Was a Very Good Year," with its enticing jazz/soul mix.

Among Frank's faults, Jack Jones, Matt Monro and the McGuire Sisters simply don't swing with the best of them. And was Paul Anka's sappy rendition of "My Way" really that necessary? Packaging-wise, the session information in the liner notes is sorely lacking, and at just under 50 minutes, the disc could have been longer. But that hardly makes Let's Be Frank's classiest moments any less worthwhile.

-- Paul J. MacArthur

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