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When teen trials fail to provoke

RECORD RACK

May 23, 2004|Richard Cromelin; Steve Hochman; Dean Kuipers; Randy Lewis; Soren Baker

Avril Lavigne

"Under My Skin" (Arista)

**

To paraphrase a line from "Sk8er Boi," could she be any more obvious?

Subtlety and artful metaphor definitely aren't the currency of Lavigne, whose huge success with her 2002 debut album, "Let Go," owed much to the plain-spoken, unambiguous directness of her dispatches from the adolescent battleground.

On her second album (in stores Tuesday), the Canadian signer-songwriter keeps her sights trained on the trials and tribulations of teendom, girl division, most memorably on "Don't Tell Me," an awkward but honest rejection of a boy's sexual advances. "Did you think I was gonna give it up for you?" she taunts like an apprentice Alanis, creating a banner-ready anthem for just-say-no abstinence advocates.

But that's really the only time Lavigne's reflections on loneliness and boy problems come close to provocative. One thing that's missing is the heat-seeking hooks that the writing-producing team the Matrix provided for three key "Let Go" songs. Lavigne has moved on to other collaborators (Butch Walker, Chantal Kreviazuk, Don Gilmore, Raine Maida and Ben Moody) who emulate that model's combination of catchy and crunchy with workmanlike efficiency but no notable inspiration.

Lavigne's popularity also owes much to her role as a waif-ish, punk-lite alternative to packaged pop stars, but she's sounding as genre-bound in her way as the synthetic singers she was supposed to be a relief from. At age 19, she still has time to come through with something substantial, but with a growing field of precocious young artists out there, better sooner than l8er.

-- Richard Cromelin

Trademark effort from Morissette

Alanis Morissette

"So-Called Chaos" (Maverick)

***

It's hard to believe, but Morissette is about to turn 30. But she's always been hard to pigeonhole by age, seeming well beyond her years -- and her peers -- in wit and intellect when she burst onto the world with 1995's landmark "Jagged Little Pill," yet engaging in a very youthful brand of self-analysis.

The vibrant contradiction remains on her third new studio album since "Pill." The trademarks -- the eccentric syntax, the rush of words, the affection for repetition -- are as prominent as ever. She isn't exploring new emotional ground, but her personal delivery and self-deprecating tone still go a long way.

The music could stand more eccentricity, though. After the relatively flat, self-produced 2002 album "Under Rug Swept," she has a new co-producer in John Shanks, but he too often employs tricks he's already used with female artists from Sheryl Crow to Hilary Duff.

"Excuses," with roiling, Zeppelin-esque Indian/Middle Eastern modality, recalls the majestic swell of Morissette's 1998 song "Uninvited." "Knees of My Bees," with prominent sitar, captures the joyous abandon of love. May her abandon and eccentricities remain ageless, however old she may be.

-- Steve Hochman

A striking kind of storytelling

The Streets

"A Grand Don't Come for Free"(Vice / Atlantic)

*** 1/2

Take the material from the Streets' brilliant 2002 debut album, "Original Pirate Material," and rip about half the stuff out of it -- half the beats, half the samples, half the beers among mates down at the pub, and you have this harrowing statement about a no-bling existence on the fringes of U.K. society.

As hip-hop, it's clinging to a single snare-snap, sometimes a lonely kick -- if this started as a genre sometimes called sub-low or garage, now it's gone to a mildewed shed in a litter-strewn lot.

The production is as dry as old wallpaper. But as a kind of Art Brut storytelling, it is magnificent. Mike Skinner has transcended hip-hop with tales so mesmerizing, so addictive, the room goes dead as he stabs with his broad Birmingham burr about a shoebox stuffed with a thousand quid missing from the kitchen table ("It Was Supposed to Be So Easy"), desperate bets on soccer ("Not Addicted"), a drunken punch-out with the TV repairman in the living room ("Empty Cans").

Unlike the working conceit of most in this genre, including Skinner's own first album, this is the interior monologue of a man not with a posse but isolated from his mates, who have left him abandoned in the club, panicked he's overdosed on Ecstasy, "roaching a spliff on my girlfriend's couch," the TV still broken, out 1,000 pounds, paranoid, angry. Your worst nightmare.

-- Dean Kuipers

Less is more from expressive Phillips

Sam Phillips

"A Boot and a Shoe" (Nonesuch)

*** 1/2

It's said that the master sculptor looks into a chunk of marble, envisions a finished form, then simply chips away everything that doesn't belong.

That's the feeling you get here, as Phillips hews songs to the absolute essentials, even more so than on her last work, 2001's "Fan Dance."

With deft, powerful strokes, the singer-songwriter chisels emotions, impressions, yearnings and regrets, giving these 13 songs exactly as much room as they need and no more. Many of them hover around the two-minute mark.

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