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Jewel
Spirit
Atlantic

Reigning pop stars Jewel Kilcher and Alanis Morissette have a lot in common -- both artists' last albums kicked serious commercial ass; both broke ground in making mainstream radio safe for women in the mid '90s; and both have recently taken up acting (Morissette will play God in Kevin Smith's upcoming Dogma, and this spring Jewel will co-star in the Ang Lee-directed Civil War drama A Ride With The Devil). If you're keeping score, Jewel bests Morissette in the literary department, though; the little black book with her poems in it, A Night Without Armor, scored a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. Not bad for someone who was living in her car just a few short years ago.

Perhaps the most interesting parallel, however, is that after skyrocketing to superstardom, both avoided a subsequent crippling creative block to produce purposeful, mature follow-up efforts.

Produced by longtime Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard, Jewel's Spirit vibrates with a distinctly more lush presence than the dressed-down, no-makeup feel of Pieces Of You. A good number of the tracks begin like unassuming acoustic numbers before swelling into understatedly grandiose productions (the first single, "Hands," included), indicating she may have her sights set on throwing off her monochromatic hippie clothes for the fancier garb of divadom. But true to Jewel's coffeehouse roots, it's Spirit's more stripped-down songs such as "Enter From The East" and "Jupiter" that are warm and unaffected, and easily its most accessible.

There's no doubt Jewel's voice can be grating -- remember, folks, she's an accomplished yodeler -- and in her overarching attempt to be sincere, she occasionally falls flat ("Fat Boy" is so bad, it hurts), but examined as a whole, Spirit sees Jewel graduating to a new level. Watch out, Celine. -- Melissa Blazek

Metallica
Garage, Inc.
Elektra

In case Load and Reload didn't convince you, Garage Inc. seals Metallica's status as the kind of band you'll see in concert to hear the old stuff. At least Garage saves you the trouble of having to dig through your collection to be sure: A portion of this double CD covers collection (admirably) rereleases the band's decade-old Garage Days Re-Revisited EP, as well as two songs -- Diamond Head's "Am I Evil?" and Blitzkrieg's "Blitzkrieg" -- that first appeared in 1984 under the title "Garage Days Revisited" (on the B-side of a single for "Creeping Death"). Those would be the best moments on Inc.; the first CD, recorded this fall, is of interest only if you need to be reminded how much better Metallica was at metal than it is at modern rock. Listening to the Garage Days portions of the record, it's hard to believe -- again -- how vast a musical world Metallica constructed from a very constricted approach to an already-narrowly-cast genre. They built everything up from the rhythm guitar and the chunk-chunk of a muted power chord. Those downstrokes so drove their music in the '80s that perhaps the quintessential Metallica moment is when every instrument -- down to the drums -- does nothing but hammer down that chunk-chunk in unison. (This occurs, after a subtly shifting buildup, to brilliant effect in the beginning of "Am I Evil?") In that context, Kirk Hammett's weak and relatively buried lead-guitar voice made sense. Not having obtrusive solos leaping out of every song meant no distractions from Metallica's crushing rhythm chops.

The new stuff on Garage Inc. gets pretty bad -- see the version of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' "Loverman." A decent chunk of it -- Skynyrd's "Tuesday's Gone," Thin Lizzy's "Whiskey in the Jar" and Bob Seger's "Turn the Page" -- displays Metallica in its full-on rock-cowboy mode that, while arousing profound contempt among old-school fans, will keep the band on commercial FM radio through the next millennium. In Metallica's hands, "Turn the Page" becomes a sort of lonely-rock-star companion piece to Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive."

Can Metallica reconcile its old ways with the new? It's worth remembering that, for all of the band's rhythmic heft, singer/songwriter James Hetfield has always been more skilled melodically than one might expect. Though Metallica's best work suggests that he and the band are better at squeezing maximum melodic juice from a limited framework or going for obliqueness than they are at the huge hook, some high points of Load and Reload hint that Metallica might yet successfully marry its machine-like roar to a more pop sensibility. (I'm thinking specifically of "Hero of the Day" and "Fuel.") But here's the thing: The best of the new stuff on Garage Inc. is decent. "The Wait," from 1987, levels buildings. At the band's peak, Metallica's records were crammed with crazed compositional ideas, insane labyrinthine structures and ridiculous rhythmic tics, and their muse was so potent they often made their most ambitious schemes work. Once a band's done that, it's hard to get excited when they settle for making competent modern rock.

-- Jon Fine

John Lee Hooker
The Best of Friends
Point Blank

Jonny Lang
Wander This World
A & M

To the casual fan, these two releases might suggest the old and the young of contemporary blues. After all, Delta-born octogenarian John Lee Hooker has issued some of the genre's most significant recordings, starting with his signature 1948 hit "Boogie Chillen." And just last year, teen phenom Jonny Lang debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's New Artist chart with "Lie to Me," earning international acclaim as a guitar-slinging blues prodigy. However, while Hooker's latest CD offers invigorated reinterpretations of authentic blues gems, Lang's sophomore production suggests he's ready to abandon the blues world for pop-rock stardom.

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