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Which is the real R. Kelly?

February 16, 2003|Natalie Nichols; Robert Hilburn

R. Kelly

"Chocolate Factory" (Jive)

** 1/2

Veteran hitmaker R. Kelly is that rare modern R&B artist who actually produces, writes and arranges his own material, as he has done for both "Chocolate Factory," his seventh album, and its accompanying (but limited-edition) six-song bonus disc, culled from the bootleg collection "Loveland." He's also accused of being a child pornographer who videotaped himself engaged in sex acts with an underage girl.

Judging by the chart success of the single "Ignition," with its soulful bounce and tired sexual metaphor (female body = fine automobile), these allegations haven't hurt his career. Although not as adventurous as Raphael Saadiq's latest, "Chocolate Factory" (due in stores Tuesday) underscores Kelly's confident touch and appealing blend of current and vintage R&B styles, as on the percussively funky "You Knock Me Out." But his tradition-upholding penchant for balancing funky lasciviousness and treacly spirituality feels formulaic at times.

The guy is innocent until proven guilty, of course, but if he wants to be judged by his music, what's up with the tediously repeated pop-star protests about being unappreciated and misunderstood? Then again, he may have a point, because it's hard to reconcile the sexy fantasies involving whipped cream and strawberries put forth on the watery ballad "Imagine That" with the yucky imagery described in various news reports about his alleged home-movie making.

-- Natalie Nichols

Magnificently mordant moods

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

"Nocturama" (Mute/Anti)

***

For nearly 20 years, Cave has explored such human constants as death, sex and spirituality. Though the Australian's work can be as bleak as the dark horror-humor of 1996's "Murder Ballads," it can also feel redemptive, like 2001's "No More Shall We Part." "Nocturama" blends those elements while illustrating how time can destroy or intensify private yearnings and romantic devotions.

Blending blues, jazz, funk and rock, the music is as gothic and otherworldly as most of the Bad Seeds' recent work. Cave's vivid, literary imagery can feel over-thought, but mostly these songs evoke the poetically direct tradition of English folk. His vibrant baritone tends to deadpan, underscoring the drama and understating the irony in such tunes as the ragged "Dead Man in My Bed," a morbidly wry portrait of a long-term relationship grown cold.

Unrequited emotions swirl through the creepy "Still in Love" and the reserved, bitter "He Wants You." Yet the intimate "Wonderful" opens the collection with a seemingly genuine invitation to soul-communion, making the ensuing tracks seem more like cautionary tales than warnings against pursuing your heart's desire. Indeed, the punkish, 15-minute closing rave-up "Babe, I'm on Fire" comically enforces the notion that everybody, everybody eventually succumbs to passion's urgent pull.

-- N.N.

A survivor,

not a victim

Kathleen Edwards

"Failer" (Zoe/Rounder)

*** 1/2

This 24-year-old singer-songwriter from Ottawa is being compared to everyone from Aimee Mann to the Cowboy Junkie's Margo Timmins, but mostly to Lucinda Williams -- and there is a strong touch of Williams' lonesome twang in Edwards' voice, along with an admirable degree of ambition and point of view in her lyrics. But her music doesn't aim for the haunting desperation of Williams' best songs.

Whatever the darkness in these tales of broken relationships or twisted circumstances, Edwards tends to surround her stories with uplifting melodies and vocals that present her as more survivor than victim. "You can't even make up my mind," she taunts some old foe in "One More Song the Radio Won't Like," a highlight track.

Edwards paints wonderful pictures of small-town blues, opening "Hockey Skates" with lines about walking into the same old bar and hearing the same old people say "hi" or "I don't care." Mostly, however, she tells us about folks in sticky situations -- from participants in an unsettling, adulterous affair to an absent father.

We may not care about these people equally, but there is a touch of individuality in every song, making us care very much about Edwards and where she may take us in a career that is off to a most promising start.

-- Robert Hilburn

*

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.

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