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RECORD RACK

Young singer, old soul

February 29, 2004|Robert Hilburn; Richard Cromelin; Dean Kuipers

Nellie McKay

"Get Away From Me" (Columbia)

*** 1/2

In a contemporary pop scene starving for inventive new voices with more than simply rock and/or hip-hop influences, McKay is one of the most intriguing arrivals since Rufus Wainwright in 1998, though her themes aren't nearly as starkly obsessive.

Like Wainwright, this 19-year-old seems like an old pop soul in her ability to draw so effortlessly on a remarkable range of styles. Over the course of the two-disc album, McKay mixes and matches everything from cabaret and Tin Pan Alley to jazz, disco and rap.

The music too is filled with just the kind of unpredictable twists and turns that you'd expect from someone who lists Doris Day as one of her idols and hopes someday to be compared to Bob Dylan. In places, you can't tell who has impressed her the most: Cole Porter or Eminem? She dresses the music in such bright colors that some songs would have been at home in '50s musicals, but there's also some political bite.

The fact that the album comprises two discs is a bit of a conceit; the 60 minutes of music could easily have fit onto one. But McKay insisted that the music worked better when separated into two discs, and the label relented to her wishes. That tells you something about both her independence and her record company's faith in her.

McKay, who plays piano on the album, was born in London but has spent most of her life in the U.S. She's expected to tour this spring, and it'll be intriguing to see just what she's like onstage.

-- Robert Hilburn

More slippery than smooth

JC Chasez

"Schizophrenic" (Jive)

**

Maybe the title is supposed to explain the daffy stylistic jumps contained in the solo debut album from the second 'N Sync member to break from the pack. Chasez is like a kid racing a car without a steering wheel through the pop landscape, and his unpredictability makes Justin Timberlake's "Justified" seem narrow and stodgy.

But it would take more than a diagnostic title to give this sampler of pop confections any coherence or concentrated effect. By the end, you don't feel you've gotten to know someone, beyond the slick hedonist who struts from most of the songs. Ultimately, all his genre-grazing makes him seem slippery rather than adventurous.

He's at his best when the setting is light and simple and his singing direct and natural. More often he's swamped by the concepts, and the album rises and falls on the listener's tolerance for the superficial, synthetic pleasures of contemporary pop craftsmanship.

Chasez starts off like a Michael Jackson (circa "Off the Wall") acolyte with "Some Girls (Dance With Women)," a Maxim magazine-level nightclub fantasy that's packed with melodic and production hooks. Then it's off into that array of retro R&B, electro-reggae, synth-heavy new wave, slick corporate rock, teen-pop balladry....

Ultimately, Prince emerges as the album's presiding spirit, with Chasez spinning into falsetto passages and airing sexual scenarios with more graphic detail than anyone needs. If people thought Timberlake was trouble, this guy isn't going to get anywhere close to Super Bowl XXXIX.

-- Richard Cromelin

Shimmer that dissipates fast

Air

"Talkie Walkie" (Astralwerks)

**

On its third album, the French duo strips away the disco affectations that were really its only connection to electronica per se to reveal the '70s mellow gold that strums at the heart of its work.

The third song, "Run," drifts at two points into a Vocoder-type synth-vocal swell that sounds like an archeological find somewhere between Eno's "Music for Airports" and the atmospheric opening to 10CC's "I'm Not in Love," which is actually not a bad way to place this ultra-minimalist album.

A work of slow guitar arpeggios, long synth lines and brief bursts of treated voices, the album continues to move Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin away from the poppy brilliance of 1998's "Moon Safari" and its irrepressible hit, "Sexy Boy." "Talkie Walkie" has more to do with the duo's ruminative soundtrack to "The Virgin Suicides," which has a tendency to shimmer in the moment but end up dissipating without going anywhere.

There are exceptions, but most of "Talkie Walkie" is static and not fleshed out, like a perfectly produced series of unfinished demos. The album ends in the sound of gentle waves crashing, and leaves about as much of an impression.

-- Dean Kuipers

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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