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OCTOBER 18, 1999: 

*** The Beautiful South QUENCH (Mercury)

The Beautiful South's Dave Hemingway says his favorite rock lyric is "They call her Natasha when she looks like Elsie." Let me expand on that by saying that anyone who misses the sharp sarcasm, shrugged erudition, and pop glee of early Elvis Costello can sate his or her jones by living with Quench for a couple weeks. With philosophy costumed as pub wit, it picks up where stuff like Get Happy left off. Driven by the signature contrast of lollipop melodies and arsenic lyrics, Quench is the Brit sextet's most irresistible disc since '92's 0898. Their formula hasn't changed: romantic imbalances, political inequity, and existential quandary are still addressed with a nudge and a wink. But what's immediately evident this time around is the advanced studio craft of Paul Heaton and pals. These tracks glisten, the product of a trad-hit maker's ear. They're as tuneful as Elton John and as accusatory as Jon Langford -- a potent juxtaposition in a song that laments the clout of capital, as "Big Coin" does. I guess if you boast enough pop savvy to make a line like "Suicide's just the anarchist that kicks down modesty" roll from the tongue, anything's possible.

-- Jim Macnie

**1/2 Sophie B. Hawkins TIMBRE (Columbia)

Hawkins's third album visits several musical genres, always comfortably, sometimes enticingly. But as on her first two CDs, few of the new songs here suggest a distinct personality or sustain a signature style. In "Mmmm My Best Friend" and "Lose Your Way" she sounds urban folkie, like Sheryl Crow. "Bare the Weight of Me" finds her playing piano and singing about conflicting emotions in both soprano and contralto registers, just like Tori Amos. Hawkins plays the cello, too (though you might not notice it), in "I Walk Alone," a Europop song of married love and wifely loneliness. Some numbers simply lack melodic shape: "Strange Thing," "32 Lines." Still, it's hard not to applaud Hawkins for the four best songs on Timbre: the storyteller's delight "Help Me Breathe"; the musically-dreamy-in-the-best-Europop-manner "No Connections," with its sultry lyrics; the sharply worded "Your Tongue like the Sun in My Mouth"; and "The Darkest Childe," a funky but horrific look at the terrors that bedevil the souls of goth fans, and the overwritten music they cling to.

-- Michael Freedberg

*** Muse SHOWBIZ (Maverick)

It's hard not to hear Jeff Buckley or Thom Yorke in the voice of Muse singer Matthew Bellamy. Passionate, intense, and slightly world-wary, Bellamy's not afraid to crawl or leap into his powerful high register to get his emotional point across. Like Radiohead, Muse specialize in smart, intricate guitar rock. There are few simple hooks or three-chord rockers on their debut, just plenty of songs floating around mid tempo and patiently allowing a melody line or chorus to develop. Produced by John Leckie (who also manned the boards for Radiohead's The Bends) and written entirely by the 20-year-old Bellamy, Showbiz isn't the least bit cocky, but it is self-assured. There's nothing tentative about the band's playing or Bellamy's songwriting, and even the few missteps -- like the turgid title track and the underdeveloped "Unintended" -- are merely unsatisfying as opposed to unlistenable. The UK single "Uno" and the first US single, "Muscle Museum," are good introductions, showing a masterful (as opposed to kneejerk) understanding of Nirvana's soft-loud dynamism and a real knack for minor-key misery.

-- Ben Auburn

*** Melissa Etheridge BREAKDOWN (Island)

Etheridge's sixth album finds her in her usual form, applying her flame-thrower voice to slow-burning contemplations and blazing declarations about raw, thorny emotions. What's new with this dependable flag bearer of singer/songwriter rock (or maybe the category's "hard folk"?) is that she's broadened her sound. The slide guitar of her on-stage foil and co-producer, John Shanks, helps touch the romantic core of the soul-searching ballad "Stronger Than Me." Greg Leisz's steel guitar is also prominent, and the textures are deepened with drum loops, more keyboards, and Pino Palladino's chiaroscuro bass lines. But the sonic tinkering doesn't alter Etheridge's agenda. This ain't no trip-hop, this ain't no aggro, this ain't ambient-ing around. These songs are as plain as Etheridge's Midwestern roots. Nothing gets in the way of her fine vocal melodies or her hook-smart, intimate-sounding lyric about mental unraveling, personal sacrifice, love, and identity. And why the hell should it? She's got a good thing going on.

-- Ted Drozdowski

*** Macha SEE IT ANOTHER WAY (Jetset)

A year after debuting with a startling album that melded Western indie rock with the pulsing, trance-inducing drones of Indonesia, Georgia's Macha have returned with a sophomore disc that again explodes conventional expectations of what pop music can be. Utilizing an array of Eastern instruments like hammered dulcimer, vibraphone, zither, and the "Fun Machine" that proved such a peculiar highlight of the band's Middle East appearance last year, the quartet bring an adventurous exoticism to songs that, had they been built on nothing but guitar-bass-drums, would still have sounded pretty cool. But here, the abraded guitar buzz of "Until Your Temples Are Pounding" is integrated into what sounds like an Indonesian street party of percussion, strings, and assorted other indecipherable noises. Later, the brooding instrumental, "Between Stranded Sonars," introduces itself with distant chimes and a faint drone that slowly builds as it gets louder, opening finally into a throbbing passage of probing slide guitar and drums that wouldn't have sounded out of place on Come's Eleven:Eleven. When it comes to pop, the musically omnivorous Macha really do have their own way of seeing things, and that's what makes them so promising.

-- Jonathan Perry

*** Lori McKenna PAPER WINGS & HALO (Gyro Productions)

Newcomer Lori McKenna seems oh-so-neatly to fit the Lilith mold. Like so many other artists in Sarah McLachlan's line-up (where the Boston-based artist was winner of the tour's local-edition "Talent Search"), McKenna sings about loneliness and heartbreak while strumming an acoustic guitar. On "As I Am," she sings in a deep, almost growling voice, "I am a lion/I am a lamb/Will you love me as I am?" Apart from the hackneyed lion/lamb metaphor, the song could double for Sheryl Crow's "Are You Strong Enough?"

But on the title track, McKenna sings about an old woman named Mary who's preparing for death, her faith giving her the strength to come to terms with her past and her fear of the future. And if the lyrics on the wearily regretful "One More Time" lack insight, McKenna compensates with her signature Appalachian harmonies. "Holy Water" uses a religious theme to fuse a woman's vision of Judgment Day with the stark reality of her life. It's tempting to dismiss McKenna as a generic female singer/songwriter, but her powerful alto voice and deep convictions help this album take off.

-- Megan Rutenbeck

*** Indigo Girls COME ON NOW SOCIAL (Epic)

Back before they began work on Come On Now Social, Indigo Girls were scheduled to play a series of high-school dates, most of which were canceled when the powers that be learned about the sexual orientation of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers. Ridiculous as this was, it may have been the best thing that could have happened to Ray and Saliers: not only does it seem to have given the didactic duo a renewed sense of purpose (reflected in their choice of the lesbian punk band the Butchies to open shows on their current tour), but it's also helped recast them as likable underdogs.

Still splitting the singing/songwriting duties roughly 50/50, and getting a little help from an array of famous friends (Sheryl Crow and Joan Osborne on background vocals, bassist Me'Shell Ndegeocello, and Luscious Jackson drummer Kate Schellenbach), the Girls kick off Come On Now Social with a refreshing blast of relatively raucous rock. Like most of the best material on Social, it recalls R.E.M., specifically the stiff, churning anthem "Orange Crush." With its prominent mandolin and countrified twang, Ray's "Gone Again," which features Band members Rick Danko (bass) and Garth Hudson (keyboards), recalls "So. Central Rain," and "Ozilline," Ray's tune about an eccentric old woman named Ozilline, is the Girls' "Wendel Gee." All said, a major improvement over the overwrought Dylanisms that dominated the first half of Indigo Girls' career.

-- Matt Ashare

** Garth Brooks IN . . . THE LIFE OF CHRIS GAINES (Capitol)

Brooks is the guy who revived the notion of Glen Campbell's Rhinestone Cowboy -- the mainstream country megastar. So, after watching Canadian country phenom Shania Twain ride her last album to the upper regions of the rock charts, he's got to be suffering from a rather severe case of crossover envy.

Enter Chris Gaines, Garth's new alter ego, because the next best thing to being a rock star is pretending you're one. A faux greatest-hits disc and teaser for an actual yet-to-be-filmed movie starring Garth as Gaines, In . . . the Life of Chris Gaines isn't quite the departure that Brooks has been boasting it is. The Bee Gees falsetto he employs on the Babyface-style ballad "Lost in You," the lite-funk groove that propels "Snow in July," and the stiff-as-a-scoreboard rapping in "Right Now" (a track that fuses Cheryl Wheeler's "If It Were Up to Me" and the Youngbloods' "Get Together") are all new twists. And they're the awkward aberrations on a disc dominated by the adult-contemporary soft and folk rock that's been a Brooks staple since "The Dance" -- he even follows up his cover of Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love" with a dead ringer for "Knocking on Heaven's Door." Put a wig and a soul patch on him and, sure, Garth can be made to resemble Soundgarden's Chris Cornell. But he still sounds like Loggins and/or Messina, and the cut most likely to throw off faithful fans is the one on the top of his head.

-- Matt Ashare

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