'THE FIRST LADY'
When they call Faith Evans "Mrs. Big," they ain't referring to Sarah Jessica Parker's "Sex and the City" boyfriend. They mean the rhythm 'n' hop slinger's marriage to the late rap giant Notorious B.I.G. No proto-gangsta moll, Evans removes herself from his dark shadow with a grand haughtiness on "The First Lady.
While the synth wheeze of the Neptunes-produced "Goin' Out" (the weakest track) provides big bang, the rest of "Lady is a slow soak in syrupy, southerly soul. As Evans ruminates on a life hard-lived and romantic victories well-worn, her graceful baritone flits atop the flickering strings of "Again" and the cool jazz vibes of "Jealous." She throws in a chatty, James Brown-style "Mesmerized" for funky good measure.
Languidly swaggering through gospel grooves or gleaming ballads, Evans is finally bigger than B.I.G.
Hot Hot Heat
Two-and-a-half years after their breakthrough album, "Make Up the Breakdown," positioned Hot Hot Heat as indie rock's most likely to succeed, the Canadian quartet delivers a follow-up that should catapult it straight into the mainstream.
Singer-keyboardist Steve Bays wraps his bratty yelp around catchy kiss-offs, and he bangs out melodies apparently inspired by ballpark organists. Drummer Paul Hawley seems to have studied Max Weinberg's pounding on Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." "Goodnight Goodnight" and "You Owe Me an IOU" are triumphant slices of radio-friendly power-pop.
Unfortunately, Hot Hot Heat can't sustain that momentum for a full 15 songs, and "Elevator's" latter half tends to drag. But the disc should be good for a hit single or two.
'ONE FOOT IN THE SWAMP'
This smart recording by a relative unknown both jumps from the speakers and makes you think.
Tenor and soprano saxophonist John Ellis grew up in a rural part of North Carolina, then headed to New Orleans for finishing school with Ellis Marsalis before hooking up with groove guitarist Charlie Hunter.
Crescent City panache plays a big role in Ellis' approach here, thanks in part to the presence of bassist Roland Guerin, trumpeter Nicholas Payton and drummer Jason Marsalis. Ellis creates an accessible mix that thrives on a funky undertow, yet he's also brainy, as on "Seeing Mice," a shifting, partly free-jazz number with Pat Metheny's harmonica player, Gregoire Maret.
The tunes sometimes drift to an artsy netherworld, yet return to check in. The marvelous, smoky vibe of "One for the Kelpers" creates sufficient space for guest guitarist John Scofield to get all soulful.
Lisa Marie Presley
Capitol, s 1/2
While listening to Lisa Marie Presley's sophomore disc, you might wonder what Meredith Brooks is up to. (I'll save you a Google search: The "Bitch" singer released an album last year and the single was used in an ad campaign for Dr. Phil's TV show.)
Back to Presley. She's Elvis' daughter, was married to Michael Jackson, and was involved with Nicolas Cage. Surely, she's got musical hoodoo in the genes, and enough emotional baggage to inspire a provocative song or 10. Yet little distinguishes Presley from the interchangeable female artists of the Lilith Fair scene, including Brooks.
In-demand song doctor Linda Perry cowrites five of the dozen tracks with Presley, which range from rant-and-roll rockers ("Idiot") to catchy stunners ("Thanx"). A cover of Don Henley's "Dirty Laundry" is as titillating as this formulaic album gets. Even that one sounds as if 10 people had to approve before it made the cut.
Virgin, ss 1/2
This 19-year-old from Houston has gotten lots of attention for her single "Girlfight," a crunk throwdown with Lil Jon and Outkast's Big Boi. But Valentine's sole contributions to that are thin, sibilant vocals -- and a mean right cross in the video.
The track is typical in one sense: Throughout this record, she cares more about the beats than the singing. That doesn't bode well for Valentine's career, but it makes for a funky debut. The brassy "Long as You Come Home" is the CD's best song, but she sounds flat, or as Randy Jackson would say, "pitchy" -- another negative sign.
'MY KIND OF LIVIN'
Broken Bow, ss 1/2 stars
'FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS: A SOLDIER'S STORY'
Moraine, ss 1/2
"That's What I Love About Sunday," the first cut on his third album and his first No. 1 hit, is not a song that Craig Morgan wrote himself. But with its litany of simple pleasures, this paean to small-town life accurately reflects the singer's sensitive-good-ol'-boy persona. The rest of "My Kind of Livin"' expands on the tune's theme, with Morgan again finding inspiration in the routines of everyday life but in more hit-and-miss fashion than on his first two albums.
Like Morgan, Keni Thomas is an Army combat veteran, and his military experience heavily informs a debut for which he has roped in some big-name guests, including Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill and Kenny Rogers. His reverent tales of heroism and sacrifice are inspiring as far as they go -- there's little of the real hell of the trenches and too much sanitized saintliness in the soldiers.
Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys
Bloodshot, sss 1/2
The king of broken hearts? Rex Hobart seems to be making a bid for the title with his new album with the aptly named Misery Boys. The hurt of "Empty House" is played out in classic honky-tonk form, with Hobart and his accompanists adding their own shades of blue in carefully modulated fashion that never gets over-the-top maudlin. "The phone never rings / I know that it's you," Hobart sings matter-of-factly in the desolate "Empty House Dawn and Twilight." Along with the smart originals is one fitting Johnny Paycheck song: "It Won't Be Long (And I'll Be Hating You)."
Sony Classical, sss
This callow-faced youth, Eldar Djangirov, hails from Kyrgyzstan, the impoverished former Soviet republic whose residents made a statement last month by throwing out their maximum leader. Pianist Eldar, who just turned 18, seeks to make a similar stunning statement in jazz, and mostly pulls it off.
Record labels have glorified young jazz players before for little more than their age and precocity. Eldar, though, is no circus act, and isn't likely to vanish, either. One good indication: The cat hangs well with saxophonist Michael Brecker here on "Point of View."
His free-flowing technique is huge, yet one of the most likable things is how he can compel listeners to curl up and take in some beautiful vistas from his classical and central Asian perspective. His own "Lady Wicks" features only him, playing a gorgeous ballad with orchestral overtones.
The kid does trot out those big chops a lot. The tunes he chooses, including the opening "Sweet Georgia Brown," are certainly dated. But it's probably hard to get new charts in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. And Eldar's ardor sticks in your head, which is a great compliment to a musician.
Knight Ridder Newspapers