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POP MUSIC | The $50 Guide

Blige, the Dixie Chicks and Trent Reznor in Full Cry

October 24, 1999|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

The R&B of Mary J. Blige and the country of the Dixie Chicks may be a long way apart stylistically, but both Blige and the Chicks share a common theme in their new albums. In fields where women have often adopted the role of standing by their men at all costs, both Blige and the Chicks make it clear that they demand r-e-s-p-e-c-t in relationships. The albums are highlighted in this guide to keeping up with what's exciting in pop music on a budget of $50 a month. But the essential package so far this fall is Nine Inch Nails' demanding look at despair and self-doubt.

September

Afro Celt Sound System's "Volume 2: Release," Real World. Sinead O'Connor's vocal presence on the opening track not only adds to the exotic sense of longing and and celebration in the music, but also serves as an endorsement worth accepting. O'Connor doesn't hook up with other musicians casually, and the music on the English band's second album lives up to her standards as it mixes a wide range of world music and electronic dance textures. Elegant and enticing.

Mary J. Blige's "Mary," MCA. Though Blige's work has always been worth noting, there was something unfocused about her earlier albums, as if she--or her co-producers--were uncertain about her exact musical and emotional center. No longer. Blige still reaches out for a lot of diverse elements--from hip-hop to a sample of Elton John-Bernie Taupin's "Bennie and the Jets"--but she weaves them together with a newfound authority. A major advance.

Dixie Chicks' "Fly," Monument. There's a lot of growth here, too, as the country trio expands the undercurrent of female empowerment that was found in the their previous album. Of all the hit acts to come out of Nashville since Garth Brooks, the Chicks may just be the best combination of classic country spirit and strong contemporary sensibilities.

October

Gomez's "Liquid Skin," Virgin. At its best (as on "Revolutionary Kind"), this British band sounds as if it is exploring the same delicate, bluesy path that Pearl Jam took on "The Long Road." It even sounds like Eddie Vedder sitting in as guest vocalist. Elsewhere, the group hits varying degrees of effectiveness as it moves through acoustic passages that are so drenched in psychedelic touches that these gently philosophical songs remind you of a cross between the Grateful Dead and the Stone Roses. You get the feeling that on this second album Gomez is still searching for its voice, but it's already sounding awfully engaging.

Nine Inch Nails' "The Fragile," Nothing. Like the Smashing Pumpkins' "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness," this two-disc collection is too long for its own good, but the heart of the album is as brilliant a portrait of psychological helplessness as you can find in rock annals. Though his lyrics are frequently revealing, Trent Reznor's great strength is in his ability to convey longing and doubts in purely musical terms that often sound like a desperate, final cry for help. This is as uncompromising as pop music gets--and maybe just about as accomplished. An album of the year contender.

Everything but the Girl's "Temperamental," Atlantic. There may be better music for crying in your beer, but as far as weeping into your martini, there's no topping Everything but the Girl. That's what an admiring critic once wrote about the veteran British duo of Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt, referring to the sometimes jazzy, quasi-lounge elements that flow around the dominant electronic dance textures. There are still lounge traces in this collection, but the pair's tales of uncertainty and angst somehow seem all the more intriguing because they are set against such impersonal musical shadings. *

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Hear the Music

* Excerpts from recent releases are available on The Times' World Wide Web site. Point your browser to: http://www.latimes.com/soundclips

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