Ashanti's breathy, cooing vocals are well suited to the mellow mood of this collection. She co-wrote everything except the solely self-penned, extremely lightweight "Thank You." But the subjects (breakups, booty calls and believe-in-your-dreams) and the production are strictly Cliche City. Despite the seductive intimacy of her sweet voice, "Ashanti" has nothing more substantial than that to prop up 17 tracks of essentially the same thing.
In addition, several strictly unnecessary between-track skits take a turn for the ugly with the "Fight" scene preceding "Over" (which comes complete with ominous thunderstorm sounds in the mix). Returning the favor, Ja Rule appears on "Leaving (Always on Time Part II)," which at least creates some interesting textures with strings, buzzing bass and acoustic guitar.
***1/2 Susana Baca, "Espiritu Vivo," Luaka Bop. The album's title, which means Living Spirit, could refer to the chilling events that haunted this vibrant recording, made in New York in the days immediately following Sept. 11. But it also applies to the ancient soul of Afro-Peruvian music, which takes on new life through Baca's exquisitely enriched versions. The classic "Toro Mata" gains depth and mystery with new choruses and eerie electronic embellishments, while the celebratory "Se Me Van Los Pies" stirs up an unexpected spell like a frenetic street rumba. Although it seems self-consciously global at times, at the expense of some true criollo flavor, this work stands as a shining, progressive contribution to the genre.
*** Brute, "Co-Balt," Widespread/Supercat. The members of Widespread Panic who back Vic Chesnutt in this occasional collaboration almost manage to make this most eccentric singer-songwriter sound generic. Not that mainstreaming the cult hero into John Hiatt territory is a bad career move. Besides, Chesnutt's typically acerbic and sympathetic dispatches from the margins of society carry their usual disquieting wallop and off-the-wall originality. Chesnutt plays the Knitting Factory Hollywood on Saturday to open the club's weeklong "Beat Fest."
**1/2 Eddie Palmieri "La Perfecta II," Concord Picante. Palmieri's latest (due Tuesday) is partly a reprise of the pianist's glory days fronting La Perfecta, the 1960s octet that stormed New York's Palladium and set the stage for the salsa explosion of the 1970s. The concept caught fire when performed live recently. On record, though, it doesn't go beyond accomplished nostalgia, captured in a sparkling recording. Six of the 11 tracks are new but predictable Latin jazz compositions. Clearly, salsa's former enfant terrible needs to start misbehaving musically again.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.