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Sheik brings back producer Rupert Hine on Humming, his second release which is more reflective and mature than his debut. Like fellow art-popper Eric Matthews, Sheik sometimes cares more about sonic pictures than pop hooks and standard pop structures. His concern for timbre sees him use some unusual instrumentation, including a bass clarinet, harmonium and bodhran. Not exactly your standard pop instruments, but Humming isn't a standard pop album. There are a couple of typical pop-alternative hits like "Bite Your Tongue," but they aren't representative of the album. Most of it is more ambitious.

The more adventurous songs draw from many styles, yet all have Sheik's unique touch to them. "Rubbed Out" has the layered sound of '70s art-rock minus the instrumental dirges, yet his falsetto is David Gates-like, and the electronic effects are reminiscent of Seal. Sheik's careful attention to nuance is apparent on "A Body Goes Down," a song filled with Indian influences, and "House Full of Riches," which builds from a small-scale piece to symphonic cascade. Sophomore efforts usually aren't this well-crafted.

Humming isn't without fault. Sheik's voice is usually good but sometimes seems strained. The string arrangements are occasionally overblown, and lyrically, though he is improving, he sometimes misses the mark, like on "That Says It All," where a great tribute to '60s rock icons with a good hook in the verse is marred by a weak chorus.

Artist maturity is an overrated concept. That an artist changes doesn't mean much if the new music isn't compelling. Though Sheik's Humming lacks a "Barely Breathing," it's an involving project that suggests he will be an important songwriter for a long time to come.

-- Paul J. MacArthur

Cowboy Mouth
Mercyland
MCA

Over the past seven years, Cowboy Mouth's three indie CDs have earned them a reputation as one of New Orleans's most eclectic aggregations. Even in a city that's famous for its musical eccentrics, the band stands out -- are they country or rock, folk or pop, Cajun or blues? And where does that funky rhythm guitar fit in? For those afflicted by the music biz's need to categorize, you could consider them a gang of singer/songwriters with an abiding love for roots music styles. but like many of the young roots rock bands currently plying their trade across the country, they're able to dip into almost any brand of musical arcana and give it their own unique, postmod kind of spin. The album kicks in with "Why Ya Wanna Do Me?" a bit of solid guitar riffomania that sounds mainstream enough, but from there on out the band bounces all over the map.

"Whatcha Gonna Do" could be a sensitive singer/songwriter ballad, except for the pounding beat and the trashy guitar; the belladonna groove of "I Want to Believe" sounds like Fox Mulder fronting the Sir Douglas Quintet; "Little Blue One," with its Latin tinge and mournful tune, echoes the early work of Roy Orbison, while "Out of My Way Back to You," "Turn Me On" and "Lovers and Friends" would all have any hard-core country crowd kicking up sawdust as they gyrated across a honky-tonk hardwood floor.

As you might expect from a group named after a Patti Smith/Sam Shepard play, the band's lyrics stray far afield from the usual pop and country concerns. The secular gospel of "Shotgun In My Soul" and the tongue-in-cheek evil of "Bad" ("I'm gonna be bad, and it's gonna be good") play plenty of unexpected tricks on the language, in the same way that their arrangements subvert the listener's musical expectations. Happily, these cheeky cowboys have the chops and the swing to pull rabbit after rabbit out of their collective musical hat, and despite their considerable swing, they maintain an in-your-face attitude that's refreshing in this era of pop navel gazing and faux romanticism.

-- j.poet

The Cardigans
Gran Turismo
Stockholm/Mercury

Gran Turismo is an exercise in cold, dark Euro-gloss -- in a perfect world it would best be relegated to functioning as the soundtrack for a depressing, futuristic B-grade sci-fi movie. Be warned: Those familiar with The Cardigans only through the frightening sugar-pop high of "Lovefool" (from 1996's First Band On The Moon) will be taken aback by this sedate set of songs about lost love and emotional isolation.

Even the few musically spirited efforts on Gran Turismo are downers: the melancholy "Hanging Around" ("I'm hanging on to the same old song, I hang around for another round ... until something stops me") could be dangerous fare for the newly broken-hearted, and the sexy first single, "My Favourite Game," isn't much better -- "My heart is black and my body is blue," Persson declares, and "in the end it's always me, alone."

But the fact these Swedes have taken a darker path isn't necessarily a bad thing. Singer Nina Persson effectively coos above layers of chilly, electric blue retro production (she was the album's primary songwriter), and her strong-woman woes belie a fragile, betrayed romantic. The video arcade game growls ("Do You Believe"), icy atmospherics ("Explode") and trance-inducing melodies ("Erase/Rewind") here throw graceful, nicely choreographed punches. Backed up against the dross of "Lovefool," Gran Turismo has true moments of being troubled, complicated and, well, downright sultry.

-- Melissa Blazek

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