Crossing Muddy Waters

Calling this album "acoustic" would do a disservice to all concerned. Except for the period around Perfectly Good Guitar and its followup live album, John Hiatt's been fifteen years ready to relegate the electric instruments and drivin' drums. So now he's taken the plunge, and the appropriate name here is a "back porch set." Sure, the three musicians love to explore the power of silence against thin sounds, just like anyone who tapes an MTV Unplugged. But these songs hold together like what you'd expect from a trio who've got some time to kill and want to breathe the outside air while they do what they do best. For instance, if they were grieving for a friend.

Topics of loss fill the songs here, but the sequence holds a deeper spell. When Track 1 is a celebratory "picking up my girl and leaving this town" song, it plays like the sort of half-wrong choice music makers would start up with until they finally accept that they're going to have to heave every last sob of mourning and then rebuild and accept their changed world - and that's what the rest of the set proceeds through. Just one example of the brilliance of the results is when the simple emptiness of "What Do We Do Now" is followed by a stream of idiosyncratic detail in "Only The Song Survives," just like somebody at the wake who doesn't yet know how much to feel.

And how's this for a twist? On an album so genuinely handmade and heartfelt that the bass player's folding chair merits mention among the limited percussion, electric guitar takes over the sound only during the most gospel-like track - the centrally located and very centering "Lift Up Every Stone." -T.E. Lyons

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She has been known as the blatant material girl, the sexy dominatrix, and the not-so-gay divorcee. Add dance diva to this list of roles, along with reflective mother and even Eva Peron. Now, with a new "ghetto fabulous" music video matched by her unpredictable Hollywood-meets-Oklahoma! look, Madonna has reinvented herself yet again with the release of her new album.

With an electronic feel similar to the Grammy-winning Ray of Light (1998), Music proves that after all these years, Madonna still has the ability to evolve musically and stylistically with each new album.

With the title track currently at number one on the Billboard Dance and Hot 100 charts, there's no disputing her status in pop and club circuits. Following "Music" is "Impressive Instant," an eerie electronic dance track that filters Madonna's voice through a vocoder, creating a computer-enhanced effect; this one is sure to be a tremendous club hit. Other up-beat tracks like "Runaway Lover" and "Amazing" are reminiscent of the light-hearted, feel-good ditties that made Madonna famous.

As always, however, Madonna refuses to be one-dimensional in her sound. With undeniably folkish influences, tracks like "I Deserve It," which addresses her boyfriend, British filmmaker Guy Ritchie, and "Gone," a beautiful affirmation of her values, make the album both personal and reflective.

Although comparable to her last album, this one has a sound all its own. Experimental and eclectic, Madonna's Music pushes the envelope within the world of pop music, bringing listeners another triumph from the woman who still defines herself as her "own work of art."-Victor Maze

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Any review of a Barenaked Ladies release must be read with an eye toward the writer's tolerance. The catch-phrase to watch out for is "too clever by half." The Canadian quintet certainly has their over-the-top moments - but that's what their fans count on. Don Was lays down a very full production that supports the songs of Steven Page and Ed Robertson like an indulgent parent staging their progeny's school play. The results show up occasional stumbles, especially in the group's vaunted wordplay, but the fun (and the hiding-behind-the-curtain pathos) doesn't let up often enough to spoil the enjoyable entirety.

The weakest moment here is "Never Do Anything," which lives up to its name all too well. As the second track, it makes for a worrisome portent that the songwriting team doesn't have a lot on its attention-deficient mind. This is the heart of the problem with the Ladies when they've not got good game: rapid-fire punning lyrical turns and non-sequiturs get exhausting when there's little reason to avoid a more straightforward approach. After the modestly successful single "Pinch Me" - brought home well with Beatlesque backwards guitar, though at heart it's just another song about ennui - there are a string of numbers where music, lyrics, and performance are in fine balance. The self-deprecating sad-clown spirit of "Conventioneers" rings true about some little aspect of life (business-travel love affairs) that you'd never expect to be captured in song. The other end of the Ladies' spectrum - geeks rocking out with a touch of versatility - gets even better treatment with the quick (befitting its subject) "Go Home" and "Baby Seat." The hidden track "Hidden Sun" shows off an unguarded hopefulness that's more genuine than other artists' power-ballad megahits of the same theme... and deserves a more prominent place among this group's shtick. -T.E. Lyons

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