LEANN RIMES "Family" (Curb) 2 ½ stars
LeAnn Rimes is the anti-Britney.
The country-pop singer had her first major hit, "Blue," when she was only 13 and had compiled a solid "Greatest Hits" album before her 21st birthday. Now 25, married for five years and seemingly well-adjusted, it seems Rimes has survived her teens and early 20s free of public meltdowns. It also feels as if we've known her forever.
"Family," her 14th studio album (counting pre-"Blue" indies and European releases), is the first for which she's had a hand in writing every track (save the two lousy and unnecessary duets that are tacked to the end; "bonus tracks" crawling in off Bon Jovi's and Reba McEntire's latest discs). The result is one of her better, more personal collections, a feisty set that owes a great deal to biting country-rock and steers clear of her previous flirtations with dance-pop.
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On the debit side: some of the ballads are no more distinct than Carrie Underwood's and, worse, Rimes' powerful voice is undermined by a tendency to mumble. This marble-mouthed diction might work on an old Rolling Stones record but for songs meant to capture feelings, like the garbled "Good Friend and a Glass of Wine," understanding the words clearly is of utmost importance.
Pod Pick: "Family," "Doesn't Everybody," "Nothin' Better to Do."
DEBORAH HARRY "Necessary Evil" (Eleven Seven Music) No stars
Buyer beware: The name Deborah Harry no longer has anything in common with the leader of the beloved New Wave group Blondie, at least not in the studio.
The iconic singer's new album "Necessary Evil" (and one is tempted to insert "Un" in front of the title) is simply an unlistenable mess. It's also unrecognizable: Harry's vocals have deteriorated to a cross between Stevie Nicks' hoarse meandering and Pink's affected, tough-girl rasp.
What's worse, the 62-year-old Harry has resorted to embarrassingly salacious profanities, a fatal attempt to give her material some sort of edge. On "School for Scandal," she leers, "The devil's d--- is hard to handle" in an annoyingly nasal tone reminiscent of "Chasing Amy" star Joey Lauren Adams. "Dirty and Deep," a failed effort at club-jumping hip-hop, of all things, offers the lines "Comin' at my curlies with your wraparound thighs" and "Grease your zipper/Swat your fly/A hole in one/A big bull's-eye." The effect is almost as sexy as an aging senator with a wide stance. Almost.
Even when Harry isn't trying to sicken us, the result is laughable. The title track is cheesy hair-metal bravado, like what you would expect if Slash were kidnapped and forced to listen to Muzak for a month before writing a new song. On the limp ballad "What is Love," Harry laments, "Yesterday I knew what it was - maybe tomorrow I'll know what it was." "You're Too Hot" is nothing but Harry sternly singing "Don't touch me/You're too hot" over and over and over, then adding childlike "Nah, nah, nahs," while "Heat of the Moment" consists entirely of the singer warbling the title tunelessly overtop Tarzan jungle rhythms.
When the final track "Paradise" breaks out the smooth-jazz sax solo and Harry sings "I just set myself on fire," you can't help but wish it were only true.
Pod Picks: None.
CAFE TACVBA "Sino" (Universal) 4 stars
Probably the most critically revered band in Latin rock, Cafe Tacvba is splendidly intelligent, adventurous, original and whimsical - art rock at its best. The band can also push the envelope so far they're inaccessible to most pop listeners. On "Sino," its first new studio album in four years, it finds a balance, pairing blithely existential lyrics and wildly adventurous fusion with its loveliest music. It's a kind of Tacvba-style pop tribute, with fierce punk pounding and soaring `80s keyboard pop cheesiness and `70s arena rock grandeur and sweet `60s psychedelia and Velvet Underground dissonance and more all mixed together, sometimes on the same song.
But it's all shaped by Tacvba's own improbably and distinctively beautiful musicality. Sonically, "Sino" is just gorgeous. There's great scope and love of pop music here. You keep going "hey, that sounds like ..." but you can't ever think what it sounds like, because "Sino" is also uniquely itself.
Pop tribute doesn't mean pop sentiments - "Sino" is ambivalent, independent, existential (like the title, which could be translated as "Except" or "But" or "However"). "I am the Outsider" singer Ruben Albarran declares in the stark "El Outsider." On the lovely "Tengo todo" he gives us perfectly circular Buddhist thinking "when I don't want anything I have everything." There are regrets over the past and uncertainty over the present "Even the memories don't fit in this space anymore" on the pop-orchestral "Volver a comenzar" (Go Back to Begin).
What Tacvba does have is a belief in creativity and individuality. On "Cierto o falso" (True or False) Albarran declares "what is real is what I hear." The only truth is the music. Cafe Tacvba's faith is our gain.
Pod Picks: "Volver a Comenzar," "Tengo todo."
FELIX DA HOUSECAT "Virgo Blaktro & the Movie Disco" (Rude Photo/Nettwerk) 2 ½ stars
Chicago house music pioneer Felix da Housecat had a hand in popularizing the dance genre electro with the 2002 album "Kittenz & Thee Glitz," featuring blase singer Miss Kittin and the club hit "Silver Screen Shower Scene."
His latest, "Virgo Blaktro & the Movie Disco," dabbles in disco, funk and futuristic soul. But does it have a soul?
Felix isn't shy about paying homage to his influences. "Movie Disco" borrows Air and Daft Punk's affection for smooth, spacey robo-vocals and warm-rush synths, while "Like Something 4 Porno!" channels the cheesy, cheeky `70s French disco of Cerrone. "Sweet Frosti" takes the clanging keyboard riffs of Dead Or Alive"" and adds a touch of Kraftwerk. "NightTripperz" gives a nod to the Pet Shop Boys' Euro-disco production, and other tracks offer brief shout-outs to Prince, Parliament and even Madonna.
But songwriting inconsistencies crash the party. "Radio" is soft electro-pop, awash with endorphin-spiking, wistful vocals, but never amounts to much; the beats and melodies of "Monkey Cage" and "I Seem 2B" the 1" feel recycled; and the dance-floor stomper "Tweak" is jarringly out of place. Felix's mishmash tries to be a fun house party, but somebody forgot the keg.
Pod Picks: "Movie Disco," "Like Something 4 Porno!"