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[Maverick/Warner Bros.] ***

Madonna turned computer music and techno beats into a career resurgence on her 1998 smash album, "Ray of Light." The one-time material girl has never been predictable and though she sticks with the synthesized dance beats, there are surprises on her new CD.

Madonna, 42, delves into familiar ground: romance, empowering women and introspection. The mood swings here include celebratory dancing highs and somber, personal lows. Madonna seems to sum up the album with this lyric: "Nobody's perfect/What did you expect?/I'm doing my best."

Electronica dominates most of the record. Producer William Orbit, who was the force behind "Ray of Light," returns for the disco-flavored, "Runaway Lover" and the rocking "Amazing." This time, though, it's a European dance master known as Mirwais who is the studio force behind Madonna. His work is best displayed on the title track, a funk-laden feast of electronic dance.

The album fails to match the energy, freshness or pop sensibility of "Ray of Light," but Madonna overcomes that with her voice and creative daring. "Don't Tell Me," a song about obsession, begins with a folky blues edge but soon turns inside out with multiple voice tracks and distorted guitars. "Nobody's Perfect," starts outs as a confessional ballad but changes into a drum- and bass-dominated synthesized number. Madonna displays some low-tech blues on "I Deserve It." It features a painful guitar accompanying her wounded vocal. Overall, the album has a kind of folk/electronic ambience that is unsettling yet provocative. Madonna shows a willingness to experiment and mix sounds and styles, such as tossing in acoustic guitar notes amidst the loops and trip-hop beats. One of the best tracks is "What It Feels Like for a Girl," with dazzling keyboards and probing lyrics such as, "Strong inside but you don't know it/Good little girls they never show it." That number was a triumph of woman over machine but for the rest of this album, it's a toss-up as to who wins that battle.

- Anthony Violanti



The Harsh Light of Day

[Hollywood Records]

They came out of left field with a hit record two years ago, but with this follow-up Fastball proves it's no fluke. "The Harsh Light of Day" is a bubbling and captivating blend of pop and rock, reflective of how Miles Zuniga, Tony Scaizo and Joey Shuffield are throwbacks to an era of layered guitars, sweet harmony and rocking beats. Fastball eschews the trendy sounds of hip hop rap and boy band rock. "You're An Ocean," the first single, features the former "fifth" Beatle Billy Preston on piano, and flat out rocks. "This Is Not My Life" features an electronically distorted vocal, pounding drums and bass.

That's the formula for Fastball's sound and success: straight ahead rock 'n' roll with a contemporary twist. Brain Setzer sits in on guitar during "Love Is Expensive and Free," which has a catchy Latin beat straight out of a mariachi band. Those are the kinds of refreshing surprises Fastball likes to throw at listeners. "Vampires" offers a dark look at love while "Wind Me Up" builds with orchestrated intensity. Fastball has more than lived up to the potential with an extra base hit on its sophomore album.

- Anthony Violanti


Dave Alvin

Public Domain

[Hightone Records] ***

Dave Alvin remains one of America's most underappreciated songwriters. "Public Domain" won't change that.

That's because Alvin has chosen to cover folk songs that are so old and so deeply woven into the rich tapestry of this country's musical history that their authorship is unclear. Hence the CD title, which is industry-speak for "We don't know who wrote this." Or as Alvin puts it in his liner notes, "They belong to nobody. They belong to all of us."

Newcomers to Alvin's craggy, pack-of-Marlboros-a-day baritone may be put off a little at first, especially on the opening cut "Shenendoah." Michael Bolton fans should save their money. But, by the third song, "A Short Life of Trouble," it becomes clear that the power and emotion in Alvin's singing is a perfect fit for this thoroughly American journey through the lives (and deaths) of sailors, soldiers, railroaders, gamblers, lawmen and lovers.

It's a tribute to the material - and the musicianship of Alvin and his bandmates, the Guilty Men - that despite only one of the songs became a true commercial hit ("Walk Right In," a ragtime-era tune the Rooftop Singers popularized in 1963), all of the songs have an inviting familiarity.

Although there is plenty of Alvin's smooth acoustic guitar work, it's more than folk. Slices of country, blues and rockabilly spice up the mix. It's clear this is a labor of love for Alvin, a keen student of how American popular music developed. "Old folk songs are spirits," Alvin writes in his notes. On "Public Domain," you can sense them smiling and tapping their feet.

- Jay Bonfatti


Weeping Willie

At Last, On Time

[APO Records] *** 1/2

Seventy-three year old Willie Robinson, aka Weepin' Willie, has a fairy godfather and godmother, Mighty Sam McClain and Susan Tedeschi. The two established blues performers have lent their support and names to the Boston performer's debut CD. Born in Atlanta, Willie is the patriarch of Boston's blues scene where Tedeschi sharpened her chops. What goes around comes around. After 40 years of singing, emceeing and entertaining, Willie's wish came true . . . "to record a CD before I die."

With McClain pulling the strings and contributing five of the 11 blues, Robinson more than pulls his weight. McClain's "Love Call" is an exciting shuffle with guitarist Jimmy D. Lane setting the tone for this elegantly rocking blues CD. Peggy Lee would definitely give a thumbs up for Willie's version of her classic, "Fever." A hammered backbeat tempers Weepin' Willie's controlled first chorus that leads to Tedeschi's gut-ripping vocal and burning guitar solo. The interplay between the two singers sizzles. The scat out-chorus is a final tribute to Lee's original.

Then, it's Mighty Sam's turn as he and Willie follow Lane's blistering guitar intro to "Can't Go Wrong Woman" with soulful vocals that play call and response with the guitar lines. "They Call Me Weepin' Willie/Mighty Mighty" with its biographical overtones reinforces the notion that the blues is about life experiences, not notes. "Glory Train," a Pentecostal juggernaut, highballs at top speed with all three singers testifying behind George Pappa George's holy roller organ playing. Only two songs are Weepin' Willie originals: "Can't Go Wrong Woman" and "Weepin' Willie Boogie." "Can't Go Wrong Woman" is a slow blues that opens with Tedeschi's blazing guitar, followed by Willie's crooning. Robinson's final blues chorus on the title song, "At Last, On Time," sums up this blues gem: "Tell all you people never give up on your dream. Just take one look at me, you'll see just what I mean."

- Jim Santella




[Warner] ****


The Water is Wide

[ECM] ***

Peruse the disc notes to Brad Mehldau's "Places" - the allusions to Kant, Schopenauer, Heidegger, Wordsworth, Kurt Cobain, Freud, Joyce, Nietzsche, Socrates, Derrida, Goethe, Duke Ellington, Mahler, Emerson, Walter Benjamin. Showing off? Perhaps. Pretentious? That too. Coherent in context? Not always. But win, lose or draw, you have to sit back and realize that no jazz musician in the music's 80-some year history has ever come down the pike with that cultural and academic frame of reference. And that intellectualism actually helps him, I think, to be the truly Romantic and powerful player that he is. In a world that is now positively prodigal with great jazz pianists, the 30-year old Mehldau - who comes to Rockwell Hall Sept. 30 - is unique.

"Places" is the superb musical notebook of a pianist on tour with a trio, with solo and trio portraits of the places he's been. Some - the solo piece "29 Palms" - are so good they're worth investigation by others. This is that rare music descendent of Bill Evans, the ur-poet of jazz piano (Keith Jarrett is another such descendent) who truly understands how vast are the expressive and coloristic possibilities for this kind of jazz piano Romanticism. A first-rate disc by a first-rate player.

On "The Water Is Wide," Mehldau accompanies 62-year old tenor master Charles Lloyd in a quartet and quintet. Lloyd, obviously, hoped he'd get some of the lyric fire and interplay from Mehldau that he once got from Jarrett and Michel Petrucciani (who, in effect, coaxed Lloyd out of retirement). It's something Lloyd fairly desperately needs and, sadly, he didn't get it on "The Water is Wide." It's a ravish, gorgeous record in small pieces but over the long haul Lloyd's exquisite sensitivity and soft, heavenly Getzian sound becomes monotonous without Jarrettesque foot-stomping or nervous, Petrucciani uptempos. Lloyd remains one of the largest but most delicate talents in jazz. He is, perhaps, the greatest player to be utterly dependent on a perfect pianistic collaborator.

- Jeff Simon

Buffalo Wax

Alison Pipitone

Shake it Around

[Slice Records]

Alison Pipitone can rock. And when she has the blues, she's a powerhouse. Why she doesn't exploit these strengths on her recordings is a mystery. But at least with "Shake It Around," her fourth release, Pipitone is moving back on the right track, even though it's still a fairly mellow release.

Pipitone continues to defy convention in refusing to romanticize her lyrics, as her dry, husky vocals work in tandem with an earthy and candid lyrical approach comparable to the graininess of a documentary film. "The sun beats down on another day, most have to work but some get to play," are the lines opening the CD in "Love Song to Me." Not only is that a great title, the song has a great outlook: "If I'm all wrong, well I really don't care - I'm gonna set myself free." "A Little More Time," "If You're Sleeping on a Train" and "Flags Fly" are among the mellow tunes carrying an old-fashioned folk feeling. With its sing-along chorus, "What Do You Do When You Don't Know What To Do" sounds like something to sing around the campfire.

As always, Pipitone is at her best when she picks it up. "Almost Anything Goes" has a free-spirited, take-that approach. One of the CD's strongest songs is "Baby Doll," a vivacious number you just know is a barn-burner in concert. I would have enjoyed more numbers like this and certainly would have liked Pipitone to rock out and really shake it around. She's certainly capable.

- Toni Ruberto

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