"Identity Crisis" (Capitol)
It took this fiercely independent singer a dozen years of navigating record industry minefields to finally make an album that properly showcased the raw passion and soulful instincts that always seemed within her reach.
But when the dark, tormented strains of 2000's "I Am Shelby Lynne" didn't connect with record buyers, Lynne set out in 2001's "Love, Shelby" to make a lighter, more radio-friendly album in the hopes of making not just critics' Top 10 lists but also the Top 10 sellers list. When that uneven work failed to bring her a wider audience (and caused some old fans to scratch their heads), Lynne turned once more to her daring side -- with mostly marvelous results.
"If I Were Smart" is the most moving torch song Lynne has written, and her vocal captures brilliantly the disabling pain of losing a soul mate -- an ache so bad that it may be better to sacrifice all feeling rather than risk the chance of being hurt that way again. "If I were smart, I wouldn't have a heart," Lynne sings.
Other tunes, notably "I Don't Think So," also express the isolation of "I Am Shelby Lynne," but she also steps beyond the shadows of that album in bright, even playful ways. "Lonesome," a lushly orchestrated country ballad, is an even better Patsy Cline salute than LeAnn Rimes' "Blue."
There are a couple of rough spots (including the unchecked anger of "Evil Man" and the cosmic undercurrents of "One With the Sun"), but the heart of "Identity Crisis" mixes country, soul, pop and rock influences in ways that are wonderfully heartfelt and true.
-- Robert Hilburn
Dave Matthews goes it alone -- for now
"Some Devil" (RCA)
Et U2, Dave?
Matthews hasn't left the band that bears his name. Rather, he says he found himself with a growing pile of songs that didn't quite fit the Dave Matthews Band so he decided to pull them together in a solo outing (in stores Tuesday). Some, especially "Grey Blue Eyes," "Save Me" and "Trouble," would have been perfectly suited for a band -- if it happened to be U2. In particular, "Trouble," with its haunted spiritual yearning and Matthews' woody, low vocal, sounds like an outtake from Bono and company's atmospheric work with producer Daniel Lanois.
Several other songs here roam and ramble, almost without structure, as Matthews takes advantage of his newfound freedom from whatever restrictions bind him in the band setting. The result often suggests a kid in a musical costume store: New Orleans soul funk here ("Up and Away (Eden)"), a late-night, falsetto-driven lament ("An' Another Thing"), Zeppelin-esque eerie rock balladry ("Some Devil Some Angel").
DMB fans probably will be content to go along for the ride while deciphering whatever it is he's getting at here, but others will be left to ask: Will the real Dave Matthews please stand up?
An artist with baggage packs it in
"She Who Dwells ..." (Vanguard)
If you measure artistry by the courage to fiercely explore painful themes as well as by insight and craft, Sinead O'Connor may well be the most gifted and influential female singer-songwriter of her generation. But you understand why she has called it quits. It's hard to maintain a musical career when so many people think you're nuts.
That's a harsh but honest summary of the way much of the pop world has forgotten the power of O'Connor's best work (including the hauntingly personal 1990 album "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got") and has been so turned off by the often controversial or bizarre twists in her personal life -- which just started warming up, it has turned out, with her tearing up a photo of Pope John Paul II on "Saturday Night Live" in 1992.
In this new two-CD package that is being billed as her farewell album, O'Connor cleans out her musical closet, so to speak. One disc features 19 rare or unreleased tracks as well as newly recorded material. Disc two is O'Connor's first live recording -- 13 songs, including her signature version of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U," that were recorded at a concert last year in Dublin.
It's not a collection meant for the casual fan (the best O'Connor introduction is the single-disc collection "So Far.... the Best of Sinead O'Connor''), but there are moments here that O'Connor loyalists will prize -- most notably three tracks (including the R&B standard, "Do Right Woman -- Do Right Man") that she recorded with Brian Eno, the imaginative producer who has done such great work with O'Connor's countrymen, U2.
The album's most surprising selection is a sweet but soulful rendition of ABBA's "Chiquitita." While not ignoring the brightness and bounce of the tune, O'Connor homes in on the song's underlying sadness.
The album's most tender moment comes at the end of the concert disc, where she chooses to say goodbye with "The Last Day of Our Acquaintance," a song that describes a relationship turned so bitter that a couple's final words to each other come in the formality of a lawyer's office.