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Sigur Ros, in a language all its own...

October 27, 2002

Sigur Ros,

in a language

all its own

Sigur Ros

Untitled

*** 1/2, MCA

Who knows what Sigur Ros singer Jon Thor Birgisson is actually singing at any given time -- at least anyone outside Hopeland, the imaginary realm whose imaginary language he uses? But throughout this album's closing, 12-minute piece (the songs, as well as the album, are without titles), he sings a two-syllable phrase that sounds more or less like "you sigh."

And you probably will sigh listening to this recording -- rapturously if you found the soundscapes of the Icelandic group's "Agaetis Byrjun" wonderfully entrancing, perhaps just sleepily if you found its pace tedious. The musical evolution of Sigur Ros seems to move at a fittingly glacial pace, and new developments on this album are subtle, though not insignificant.

The overall effect is the same, the feeling of being enveloped by waves at once icily numbing and warmly comforting, with Birgisson's high voice and atmospheric bowed guitar the central features. But there's added structure now, as the pieces (eight of them averaging nearly nine minutes in length) rise from Brian Eno-like ambience to drum-burst flurries recalling Icelandic composer Jon Leifs' impressionistic portrayals of the island's vulcanian tempests. In fact, the crescendo of Track 7 might actually make you gasp as well as sigh. Sigur Ros plays the Wiltern Theatre Nov. 19 and 20.

A more generous,

loving namesake

Tori Amos

"Scarlet's Walk"

***, Epic

Surviving trauma has always been a theme for this singer-songwriter, and her seventh album is no exception. But as the collection's title figure encounters myriad characters while making her metaphorical way across the USA, Amos focuses less on registering anger and hurt and more on seeking solace and love.

That Scarlet ultimately finds both within herself is also a typical Amos lesson, but, literary devices aside, "Scarlet's Walk" reveals the eccentric musician's heart as more generous and unguarded than ever. Although she was inspired by the feeling that Americans saw their country after Sept. 11 as a wounded being rather than an abstract concept, she forgoes collective soul-searching for a characteristically intimate, personal take.

Most strikingly, she eschews histrionics to sing with empathy and soothing grace. The only slightly discordant notes are on the false-Messiah reproach "Pancake." As the producer, Amos lets the piano-driven tunes flow serenely into one another, with delicate threads of electric guitar, strings and carefully placed percussion. The songs interweave touchstones from her mother's Native American heritage with scenes from across the country and myriad pop-culture references. It's a lot to absorb, but Amos' gentle wit and sense of constant reevaluation make "Scarlet's Walk" a curiously moving journey toward inner strength. Amos headlines the Universal Amphitheatre on Dec. 17.

More sex talk

and no apologies

Shaggy

"Lucky Day"

***, MCA

Shaggy makes no particular claims of seriousness. Or not many. Marley is rarely on the mind of this modern reggae singer, whose specialty remains the sort of sticky rhymes on sex and manhood that helped propel 2000's "Hotshot" album to sales of more than 6 million in the U.S. So his new album is more playful than deep, fueled by mischievous charm and sultry visions.

"It takes a real man to make a woman complete," he sings early on, demonstrating as much amid the female moans of ecstasy and electronic riffs of "Hookie Jookie." Soon enough Chaka Khan herself is joining Shaggy on the devious hip-hop soul of "Get My Party On."

Aside from the sex talk, Shaggy still finds a few moments of spiritual uplift on "Full Control," a duet with reggae vet Barrington Levy, declaring, "Independent woman doesn't depend on a soul nobody has to tell her her role." There are more good vibes and a hint of old-time R&B on "Strength of a Woman." Less convincing is the ghetto cautionary tale of "Lost." He sounds far more comfortable singing from the bedroom.

Soul of Mexico's working class

Los Tigres del Norte

"La Reina del Sur"

*** 1/2, Fonovisa

With a career that spans three decades, Los Tigres are among the most respected groups in norteno, a genre often disparaged as hick Mexican music.

The latest Tigres release shows a perk of their success: The group gets its pick of the best songs in the field. This superb set of 14 tunes by eight composers stays so true to the reality of working-class Mexicans it plays like a documentary.

Several tunes include dialogue, with those earthy accents characteristic of northern Mexico. We hear a distressed father confronting a young man over his missing daughter, and another heartbroken father sending off to war the son he raised to respect life.

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