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POP MUSIC | The $50 Guide

From Timeless Harris to Vintage Los Lobos

October 22, 2000|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

Four debuts--five if you include a Los Lobos reissue--highlight this edition of Calendar's guide to keeping up with what's exciting in pop music on an album budget of $50 a month. But the strongest entry is from veteran Emmylou Harris.

September

Emmylou Harris' "Red Dirt Girl" (Nonesuch). Thanks to her ethereal vocals and uncanny taste in finding quality material by other writers, Harris has been one of the great wonders of modern pop for more than two decades. But she elevates her artistry another level on this album by turning into an accomplished songwriter herself. Harris has written a few songs before, but nothing to suggest the haunting beauty and timeless character of these tunes about devotion and isolation. The textures in this contender for album of the year lean to experimental country/folk/blues.

Nelly Furtado's "Whoa, Nelly!" (DreamWorks). Don't make the mistake of putting this young Canadian singer-songwriter in the synthetic diva camp of the Mariahs and Christinas. Here's someone who not only has a superior voice, but also knows how to showcase it. It's not always a good sign when an artist draws upon as many influences as Furtado does in this debut, but that diversity (everything from hip-hop and dance music to traces of her Portuguese heritage) works well here, adding to the bold authority that fills these marvelously designed looks at romantic complexities.

Jill Scott's "Who Is Jill Scott? Words & Sounds Vol. 1" (Hidden Beach/Epic). Scott is a former high school teacher and poet who got involved in pop music after hooking up with the Roots, the celebrated hip-hop group. While the jazzy/R&B/hip-hop edges of this album debut are too restrained at times, the tales of romantic celebration and search are blessed by intimacy, frankness and some deliciously surprising twists.

October

At the Drive-In's "Relationship of Command" (Grand Royal/Virgin). This El Paso outfit shares a producer (Ross Robinson) with Korn and Limp Bizkit, but the music in this major label debut avoids the generic angst of the former and the dumbing-down calculation of the latter. The closer model is the howling fury and metal-driven confrontation of Rage Against the Machine, only the Drive-In's canvas is broader, melodically and thematically. Some of the storytelling is obscure, but there's a lot of commendable social consciousness. One of American rock's most promising arrivals in years. ATDI plays the Palace on Nov. 20.

Badly Drawn Boy's "The Hour of Bewilderbeast" (XL). Between his stage name and album title, singer-songwriter Damon Gough sets you up for something eccentric and kooky, but the love songs in this debut are as sensitive and straight from the heart as anything you'll hear this year. Gough, whose album recently won England's prestigious Mercury Music Prize, works in an alt-folk style reminiscent of Elliott Smith, only with slightly more aggressive rock and techno-minded instincts. He and his band will be at the Knitting Factory on Nov. 17.

Los Lobos' "Los Lobos Del Este De Los Angeles/(Just Another Band From East L.A.)" (Hollywood). There's a shelf in my living room where I keep a handful of albums that express such universal charm or warmth that they are ideal background music for almost any gathering of friends--albums such as "The Harder They Come" soundtrack and Paul Simon's "Graceland." This one's going there too. Recorded in 1977 before Los Lobos established itself as one of the great pop-rock groups ever from Los Angeles, this album, available for the first time in CD, is a Spanish-language exercise that mixes tradition with the band's own contemporary personality. A joy.

*

Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, can be reached by e-mail at robert.hilburn@latimes.com.

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