Abra Moore
Strangest Places
Arista Austin

You might remember Abra Moore as the violin-toting co-founder of the airheaded bohemian-rock ensemble Poi Dog Pondering. But even if that's so, there's a good chance you've lost track of her since then. After abandoning Poi as the group was about to sign with Columbia (and then getting lost in the shuffle as one more casualty of major-label bidding wars), Moore settled in Austin, traded her violin for an acoustic guitar and went about refashioning her identity as a solo artist.

All things considered, Moore has to realize that what she's selling is far from unique. Her pillowy, precocious coo is a dead ringer -- delivery and all -- for Edie Brickell's. And she approaches the confessional singer/songwriter business with the sort of semidetached self-absorption that's been mined and refined repeatedly ever since Joni Mitchell made her impressionistic brooding public. Still, Moore's command of the pop vocabulary is undeniable, and her assimilation of her influences is immaculate -- almost unnervingly so.

Moore's latest CD, Strangest Places, is a vast leap in self-confidence from Sing, her tentative independent release of two years ago. Undoubtedly, this meticulously crafted effort is hit-hungry Arista Austin's attempt to dislodge Moore from the modest Americana niche and loft her into the hipper, more lucrative Alanis-sphere. Recorded with a sleek, sonically arresting punch by former Leonard Cohen guitarist Mitch Watkins (a regular Moore collaborator), Strangest Places is awash, and occasionally adrift, in plush production values, exacting musicianship and somewhat disorienting technical sophistication.

Fortunately, Moore's songs -- much like her molded porcelain features and ear-to-ear, schoolgirl grin -- are striking enough to withstand their heavy makeovers. The disc's first single, "Four Leaf Clover," is just one of Strangest Places' many radio-soluble offerings, its gnawing hook and deceptively giddy chorus inevitably committed to memory after a single listen. "Say It Like That," "All I Want" and "Don't Feel Like Cryin' " are as fundamentally catchy as they are studiously crafted. Nearly everything on Strangest Places -- and that includes more subtle tracks such as the bittersweet piano lullaby, "Happiness" -- resonates on some level, even while flaunting the fussed-over sheen of a major label's commercial ambitions. (*** 1/2)

-- Hobart Rowland

Mary J. Blige
Share My World

On the cover of her new CD Share My World, Mary J. Blige, wrapped in a fur-lapeled overcoat and Fendi sunglasses, strikes the pose of someone comfortable being utterly vainglorious. It's not surprising that she can pull the attitude off; well before the title was given to her, Blige possessed the look of a diva. It's even one of the reasons she's been such an enormous figure in pop music.

Unlike other contemporary chanteuses Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Madonna, all of whom had to pay hissy-fit dues in order to reach full divadom, Blige jumped into prima donna mode without flashing a single finely-manicured claw. It wasn't until this album that apparent egotism kicked in. An eager search for acceptance undercut the attitude on her 1992 debut What's the 411?, while thankful modesty subdued her 1994 follow-up My Life. But with Share My World, she's a full-fledged diva, and may god have mercy on the poor souls who don't accept it. The title of the album could have been Share My World ... Or Else!

What gives off this conceited vibe? Her self-congratulatory CD intro, for one. Before the title track kicks in, a godly voice, without any trace of irony, summons the listener to "feel the queen in her beautiful blackness." Previous collaborators Sean "Puffy" Combs and Andre Harell are gone this time around; in their place as producers she's got R&B royalty Babyface ("Missing You"), R. Kelly ("It's On"), and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis ("Love Is All We Need"). Even for die-hard Bligeheads, the songs produced by these kings might be too majestic. Still, there are always simple and satisfying numbers such as the title track, "Seven Days" and Blige's Waiting to Exhale anthem "Not Gon' Cry" to set things straight with the common folk.

Share My World might be Blige's most conspicuous ego trip yet, but at least she knows who she is and what she wants. To paraphrase that great Rat Pack line, "It's Mary's world, and we all just live in it." Or to paraphrase another great line, this one from street scholar Oran "Juice" Jones, "It's Mary's world and we're all just squirrels looking for a nut." Either way, it's still Mary's world. (*** 1/2)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Bruce Cockburn
The Charity of Night

On much of his latest CD, The Charity of Night, Bruce Cockburn is looking for the light, whether that light comes from a new day, hope for the future or connections between people. Most of all, though, it seems the light he's seeking is that of personal inspiration while he muses over past accomplishments.

Though Cockburn's impassioned world-view and sincere social and environmental commentaries have long been chief among his endearing qualities, they've also prompted critics to accuse him of sounding "overpoliticized" and "heavy-handed." On this, his 23rd release, Cockburn spreads his political polemics and introspective monologues over a rich tableau of jazz and acoustic blues, coupling his familiar, nimble acoustic finger-styling with Rob Wasseman's smooth, gliding phrases on the fretless double bass. Lilting backup vocals by Patty Larkin, Jonatha Brooke, Maria Muldaur and Ani DiFranco add angelic resonance to the harmonies of the beckoning "Get Up Jonah," the ambling "Night Train" and "The Coming Rains." The addition of Gary Burton on vibes helps create a friendly jazz feel on the instrumental "Mistress of Storms," among other tracks. And on "The Whole Night Sky," Bonnie Raitt's buoyant slide guitar lifts the tune up off the ground.

The writing is especially penetrating on songs such as "Live on My Mind," in which a lover is described as "The ocean ringing in my brain / You are my island ripe with cane / Catch the scent of strange flowers when you pass / Fluid motion like the wind in grass." However, in songs such as "Birmingham Shadows" and the first two stanzas of "Get Up Jonah," the writing is ungainly, as if Cockburn were striving for novelty. When his talking blues monologues work, he sounds like the Jim Morrison of An American Prayer; when they don't, he simply sounds contrived.

Still, despite the occasional lyrical lackings, Cockburn has molded a palatable and fervent look into the contradictions and vicissitudes of life. One of his better tunes, "Mines in Mozambique," speaks to a cause the singer has recently taken up: ridding the world of land mines. Written after a fact-finding trip to Mozambique, the song paints a picture of human misery without being too militant about the issue. Cockburn's label, Rykodisc, has offered to donate $5 to the Campaign Against Land Mines every time this song gets played on the radio. Given its quality, they should end up contributing a bundle. But unfortunately, given the monotonous landscape of radio playlists these days, the record company probably won't have to dig too deep. (*** 1/2)

-- Chris Johnson

Chemical Brothers
Dig Your Own Hole

On their debut CD Exit Planet Dust, the Chemical Brothers -- Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons -- seemed mainly interested in adding element after element to their beats, then pulling them out of the mix unexpectedly and letting the tension build relentlessly, anxiously, as the listener tried to anticipate just when the other beat would drop. But on their new Dig Your Own Hole, the Brothers have so many ideas to make us move, so many beats they want to throw down, that they don't have time for such old-school dance floor tricks. Instead of dulling the musical momentum in order to restore it, these new tracks simply and suddenly divert the momentum into some new, unanticipated direction. In "Piku," for example, a loping, loud hip-hop groove suddenly steals the wheel away from the intense whirring that had been driving us forward just a second before, and the challenge is to keep up and hang on as more noises scream by and as the rhythms pile up. Throughout Dig Your Own Hole, the Chemical Brothers crank the RPMs and make the samples ever more dense, the rhythms ever more complex, and the wonder of it all is that, like the Bomb Squad did before them, they create music that sounds more powerful and focused the more crazed and seemingly out of control it becomes.

Perhaps in an attempt to make techno more understandable to the rhythmless masses, the duo has added voices to a few cuts here, but it's unlikely that the results will win any converts. In fact, the least interesting moment on the CD is the most conventionally song-based composition, "Where Do I Begin," in which vocalist Beth Orton crawls through a meandering, indolent melody that never catches hold. At least so far, voices work best in the Chemical Brothers' world when they serve as just another rhythmic element, or as pure atmosphere.

For about the first minute of the psychedelic "Setting Sun," right up until a piercing, trumpety synth blast comes firing in (only to be almost immediately replaced by some spy-flick sitar riffs), you almost expect the Brothers to start singing "Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream," from the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows." But then guest Noel Gallagher appears, shouting and echoing along in a singsong melody, and the main effect is to make the beats slam all the harder. Like the CD's great first single, the thundering "Block Rockin' Beats," the music on Dig Your Own Hole is about sound and rhythm most of all, and the inchoate meaning that can only be expressed by a joyous, rocking noise -- and the way it makes us want to move. (****)

-- David Cantwell

Hamell on Trial
The Chord Is Mightier Than the Sword

"I'm as bad as Nine Inch Nails, except I don't need machinery," boasts Ed Hamell, just before declaring, "I'm like the Beastie Boys, except I'm only one." While those self-assessments are mostly truths, it's somewhat criminal that Hamell still has to explain why the words "solo," "acoustic," "punk," "singer" and "songwriter" aren't each mutually exclusive.

Indeed, Ed Hamell is all that -- and generally all at once. Hamell's press savvy enough to realize that his two-line review of himself is likely to land at the front of every review -- like it did this one -- and smart enough to know that it's now that he's most in need of some spin control. Because unlike his 1996 debut Big As Life, The Chord Is Mightier Than the Sword is something of a mixed bag.

First, and most notably, there's a band here -- and it's a rock outfit that's as clumsy as Hamell's narratives are clever. Actually, that's the good news. The bad news is Hamell's newfound jones for traditional songwriting. Catchy melodies and muscular hooks have never done as little for someone as they do for Hamell here. Sure, the verses are still dry, dark and witty, but songs such as "Mr. Fear" and "No Delay" are all pop, no sting. Ultimately, they feel like incomplete concepts. Granted, they improve with each listen, but Hamell's raspy voice and occasionally self-righteous lyrical turns aren't likely to make a second listen all that appealing to anyone other than diehard fans. Only on the three tracks that Hamell goes it alone, with his familiar combination of speed metal acoustic runs and rapid-fire word assortments, does he seem comfortable -- and believable.

As such, it's nothing short of a joy to hear "The Vines" wind itself into an unlikely anthem for day laborers and "John Lennon" conclude as a hilarious coming-of-age comedy of errors. And there, for just a few minutes, is Hamell and the "little bit of wood and little bit of wire" he brags about on the CD-closing "The Meeting." That the song is truly a masterpiece only leaves you hoping that what preceded it is just a frustrating sophomore slump; it's also more evidence (as if any were needed) that sometimes concepts can be mightier than the product they inspire. (**)

-- Andy Langer

Elegantly Wasted

Michael Hutchence's looks might have won him the attention over the years, but it's the Farris brothers -- Tim, Andrew and Jon -- who are the glue that holds the sound of INXS together. Jon's rock-solid beats have kept the rhythms sharp and danceable, while guitarists Andrew and Tim always drop in leads and riffs that seem to fit perfectly within each song.

Elegantly Wasted's title track is a perfect example of this musical synergy: The brothers lock tightly into the song's groove, creating a sparse, edgy rhythm. Adding to this breathy vocals by Hutchence and a sweeping chorus elevates the song to the kind of slinky soul-rock the band perfected years ago on "Need You Tonight." Given that INXS has always relied heavily on keyboards and synthesizers to enhance their sound, you might figure that they'd hook up with a hotshot techo-junkie like Tricky to pull their music headlong into the electronica storm. Instead, they turn the other way, stripping away the usual dense layers of keyboards and taking a less-is-more approach. The CD's opening track, "Show Me (Cherry Baby)," features some atypically raw, aggressive guitar work, while only an acoustic guitar and saxophone carry the melodic "I'm Just a Man." But the secret weapon on Elegantly Wasted is producer Bruce Fairbain, the man partially responsible for Aerosmith's re-ascension. Providing the music with a glimmery sheen, he adds his own sound sparkle to the propulsive "She Is Rising" and "Don't Lose Your Head."

Though INXS has recorded some quality music over the past decade, for the most part, after breaking through with 1987's Kick, they let their pretensions get the best of them: X was too dark, Welcome to Wherever You Are too ambitious and Full Moon, Dirty Hearts simply a mess. None of these problems plague Elegantly Wasted. On this CD the band sounds revitalized, and finally ready for the next century. (***) -- David Whitman

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.


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