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NOVEMBER 1, 1999: 

***1/2 Paula Cole AMEN (Imago/Warner Bros.)

Cole may be the most interesting singer to emerge since Sinéad O'Connor, with a dazzling range and a knack for spinning her phrases into unpredictable curlicues. She's clever, too, offering the unreconstructed disco flare "I Believe in Love" as a first and obviously hit-bound single to distract her record company from the complexity of the rest of this CD. "I Believe in Love" is also the opening track of Amen., which then plunges deep into spiritual and personal exploration.

The songs on this album, Cole's third, groove but defy pop conventions with their labyrinthine structures and broad palette of misty sounds. She frequently uses her voice as synthesizer and strings, providing instrument-like colors. At times her lyrics trip into new-age preciousness; otherwise they fix on the struggles of the poor, the battles of self-improvement. When her phrasing gets too rococo, her words get swallowed, twisted out of meaning; but Cole has developed a vocal style that blends art rock's devotion to sound-as-texture with the moan-and-purr of classic soul singing. And the results are entrancing.

-- Ted Drozdowski

*** Patricia Barber COMPANION (Premonition/Blue Note)

A couple of albums ago (Café Blue, 1997), Barber favored drifting free tempos, open harmonies, and soaring vocal high notes. But last year's hit Modern Cool marked a transformation from dream angel to smoky noir cabaret chanteuse -- guitarist John McLean's flamenco acoustic guitar became all Scofield-electric tart, the arrangements spiced the atmospherics with rhythm, and Barber, rather than floating into the ether, got right down near your ear and purred.

Companion, recorded live at Barber's home base at the Chicago club the Green Mill, is more focused still -- at 46 minutes, it's the portable Modern Cool (she reprises two of that CD's tunes) and even riper for crossover, with covers of "The Beat Goes On" and "Black Magic Woman." It's minimalist throughout: acoustic bass, hand drums, McLean's guitar, and Barber's Hammond B3 providing musically apt but spooky dissonant effects, Barber's voice hanging in the lower register and sneaking in behind the beat with lyrics that are almost too clever ("If this isn't jazz/Then it will have to do/Until the real thing comes along"). It's a band album as much as vocal album, which is why the covers work as well as the ripping piano trio tribute to Jacky Terrasson.

-- Jon Garelick

***1/2 Matthew Sweet IN REVERSE (Volcano)

Although Sweet claims the title of his seventh album refers to both the Beatlesque backwards instrumentation that peppers it and his wistful desire to reach back to more innocent days, it also alludes to the songwriter's dramatic musical about-face. Two years after releasing the lackluster, mostly self-made Blue Sky on Mars, Sweet has returned to his old habit of tapping talented collaborators to help make his pop classicist's dreams come true.

The result? His best album since '93's Altered Beast and perhaps his most ambitious undertaking ever (the disc's closing track, "Thunderstorm," is a four-part love-as-nature suite that evokes Abbey Road, "Good Vibrations," and "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"). Working with a cast of more than a dozen history-steeped session pros (among them guitarist Greg Leisz and Pet Sounds bassist Carol Kaye) and old friends (Velvet Crush's Paul Chastain and Ric Menck, Girlfriend producer Fred Maher), Sweet has orchestrated a wonderwall of sound that does more than just pay hipster lip service to its influences. Like Brian Wilson, he's often cast his lyrically somber songs about emotional desolation in the service of a hopelessly catchy chorus and sun-splashed melody. For that reason, the ornate tack piano and sleigh-bell trappings of the buoyant but confessional "If Time Permits" and "I Should Never Have Let You Know" make perfect sense. Despair rarely sounds this sweet.

-- Jonathan Perry

**1/2 Marcy Playground SHAPESHIFTER (Capitol)

On his band's second album, Marcy Playground singer John Wozniak can't decide who he'd rather sing to: teenagers or adults. At first listen, Shapeshifter seems strictly for kids. Wozniak stays home sick from school on the leadoff track, "It's Saturday," eating "foie gras on some hot chicken soup" and yodeling up a storm while his band throw a grunge tantrum. On "Secret Squirrel" and "Pigeon Farm," he even garbles nonsense about animals like that guy from Presidents of the United States of America used to.

But the rest of the album is full of melancholy that brings to mind a grumpy Neil Young. "America" is a predictable, acoustic-strummed meditation on small-town life that's at least a bit more profound than "Sex and Candy," Marcy Playground's breakthrough single from a few years back. And with its musty title and Crazy Horse guitars, "Rebel Sodville" sounds more like Uncle Tupelo than any MTV one-hit wonder has a right to. So what will it be, Teen Beat or No Depression? Only "Wave Motion Gun" will please both camps. It's got that whisper-to-a-scream grunge catharsis that kids love and poignant and decidedly grown-up lyrics about drug abuse.

-- Sean Richardson

** Eve LET THERE BE . . . EVE -- RUFF RYDERS' FIRST LADY (Ruff Ryders/Interscope)

The latest 20-year-old female rapper has her own subtle way of clipping her thoughts and rhymes half a beat short while keeping her aggressive flow steady and clear. But her debut in the Billboard Top Five had more to do with her short-clipped platinum-blond 'do and the twin cat's-paw tattoos on her cleavage -- that, and the support of DMX's Ruff Ryders crew. "She's classy," Ruff Ryders CEO Darrin "Dee" Dean told Blaze magazine. "But she got a nigga attitude." In other words, her sexy-but-hard "middle ground" is usually subservient to male fantasies and prerogatives.

But not always. Yes, her talents are often blunted by her predictable role-playing -- moll, golddigger, bad mama -- or drowned out when her boisterous boyz grab the mike or blare standard martial beats behind the boards. But DMX's crew also demonstrate respect for the achievements of Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott by supporting this Philly freshman as she occasionally explores "classy" all the way free of "nigga attitude," especially on the anti-domestic-violence showstopper "Love Is Blind." For now, though, she elevates only where the game has already been elevated.

-- Franklin Soults

**1/2 Emmanuel Pahud MOZART: FOUR FLUTE QUARTETS (EMI Classics)

This recording is another vehicle to showcase the talents of flutist Emmanuel Pahud, who is being marketed as the next James Galway (Heaven help us!). Like Galway before he went solo, Pahud is principal flutist of the Berlin Philharmonic and tours as a soloist and chamber musician.

Although the four quartets are chamber music, they are treated here as mini concertos with the flute front and center. The three string players are identified by name only, and their sonic contributions minimized. In any case, these pieces are not top-drawer Mozart. The music ranges from the lovely, aria-like Adagio of the D-major Quartet (K.285) to the quite conventional theme with variations and the perfunctory finale of the A-major Quartet (K.298). Although he was writing on commission and needed the money, Mozart obviously didn't have his heart in the job of composing the first three quartets ordered by his Mannheim patron, Monsieur de Jean. In the fourth, he may have been indulging in parody of contemporary French styles, though the music isn't bad enough to be ridiculous. It just sounds banal.

Pahud's playing is big, penetrating, technically assured. But he doesn't impress one with great subtlety, expressivity, or variety of color. Then again, there isn't much in the music to call forth those qualities. This pleasant but unobtrusive recording would make perfect background music in a restaurant with pretensions, or a Victoria's Secret boutique.

-- Ellen Pfeifer

*** Counting Crows THIS DESERT LIFE (DGC/Interscope)

In Counting Crows' 1993 breakthrough single, "Mr. Jones," singer Adam Duritz came right out and admitted that he wanted to be a star, or at least Bob Dylan. So it was a little hard to take the joyless and morose manner in which he greeted the onset of stardom on the Crows' sophomore disc, 1996's Recovering the Satellites, particularly given the disc's rather expansive- (i.e., expensive-) sounding production values.

But Duritz goes a long way toward redeeming himself in the new "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby," a loose, Dylanesque collection of verses that begins with an admission -- "I am an idiot walking a tightrope of fortune and fame" -- and goes on to coax a certain amount of pleasure from whatever pain it is that's kept him from enjoying his good fortune. The band, who still sound as if they'd like nothing more than to be the Band of the Basement Tapes era, seem to have loosened up again, and the arrangements on This Desert Life (in stores this Tuesday) feel less claustrophobic. And if Duritz's penchant for drawing inspiration almost exclusively from his darker moods hasn't abated ("If I could make it rain today/And wash away this sunny day down to the gutter/I would," he assures us in the piano-based ballad "Amy Hit the Atmosphere"), he at least seems to recognize that he enjoys being tangled up in blue.

-- Matt Ashare

** Agnostic Front RIOT, RIOT, UPSTART (Epitaph)

You generally know what to expect from the Epitaph imprint: its bands have a Cookie Monster punk image. The musicians may be angry, tattoo'd, and pierced, but Epipunkers are sensitive AA graduates. And most of the albums have that Lars Frederiksen production, which sounds like '80s glam-metal minus the reverb, even if Rancid's Frederiksen isn't at the knobs.

This dressing worked last year on Agnostic Front's Epitaph debut, Something's Gotta Give: the disc marked an Agnostic Front reunion, and it had the band coming off like the thug-punk equivalent of Journey, with sappy street lyrics about "believing in hardcore" lavishly accompanied by big, glossy guitars. Aside from some by-the-book Brit-punk/Oi!-style filler, Riot, Riot, Upstart is a more intimate outing for the veteran hardcore band -- intimate in a primal sense. At times listening is like witnessing a temper tantrum: "Police State," "Blood, Death & Taxes," and "Bullet on Mott St." are less songs than politically charged staccato shouts fitted with guitar riffs. So this time the Friday-night-arena-band production, featuring "spooky" sound effects and an Epitaph choir of special guests on soccer chants, isn't quite appropriate. In fact, it detracts from the Sunday-afternoon-punk-matinee catharsis.

-- Lorne Behrman

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