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MUSIC REVIEWS: Rasputina, Shane Nicholson, Scott Fisher & 1 a.m. Approach

"OH PERILOUS WORLD," Rasputina (Filthy Bonnet)

Everything about the performing persona of Rasputina frontwoman Melora Creager is eccentric, but to her, apparently, nothing is more peculiar than current events.

Creager was a newshound in her quest for lyrics for her Brooklyn-based act's new "Oh Perilous World," hence the liner-note credits to CNN, the New York Times and others. Yet by giving these stories the Rasputina spin, they sound as fanciful as her lyrics for 2004's "Frustration Plantation," which drifted to an imaginary place nearly two centuries ago.

The Rasputina treatment includes the usual/unusual "cello-rock" stylings plus surreal artwork and, in the case of "Oh Perilous World," dulcimer by cellist/singer Creager and an array of imaginative percussion by drummer/pianist Jonathon TeBeest.

There are enough past members of the band to fill a small bus, but none of them were as crucial to Rasputina as Creager. And on "Oh Perilous World," her voice has never sounded stronger or prettier -- even accessible in some weird, alternate-universe way.

The new release also reflects sonic growth, though not so much that Creager doesn't revert to her buzzing, punkish tendencies on "Draconian Crackdown" or her chatty performance-art guise on "Choose Me for Champion" (which is, incidentally, primarily a translation of a speech by Osama Bin Laden).

As always, Rasputina merges humor, sobriety and strangeness into unpredictable contexts -- with defiant, full-throttle bedlam on a "Cage in a Cave" that questions the utopia of "paradise," and with a dainty, decorative romp on "Child Soldier Rebellion."

Those not driven away by the basic premise of Rasputina are likely to be helplessly sucked in, caught up in the images of women on a cliff side on "Oh Bring Back the Egg Unbroken" and Creager's remarkable show of emotion as she dispenses symbolic horticultural images on "The Pruning."

If you can hang with Creager, Rasputina's escapism is inescapable.

Rating (five possible): 4

"FAITH & SCIENCE," Shane Nicholson (Virt)

The overabundance of singer-songwriters wouldn't be bad if so many of them weren't untalented and too dumb/egocentric to realize it.

The glut of hacks makes it hard for a legitimate artist like Shane Nicholson, especially considering the subtle genius of his work doesn't instantly set him apart from the pack.

A cursory listen to the Australian's new "Faith & Science," a follow-up to his acclaimed 2004 debut "It's a Movie," might leave the impression he's a relatively mundane performer with an above-par knack for hooks.

However, Nicholson's brilliance is his unassuming aural demeanor, which baits the trap for deep rewards once his gorgeous melodies sink in, tied to articulate lines and just enough emotional restraint.

Nicholson has been compared to scores of other male singer-songwriters, but at his best he seems to be an artistic soulmate to Aimee Mann.

Like Mann, he's prone to discover an insanely infectious line and repeat it as a refrain, its multiple meanings reflecting Nicholson's grasp on the complexities of melancholia without overselling his insight. On the guitar-based "Everybody Loves You Now," for example, it becomes clear with each repetition of "It's all right, everybody loves you now" that everything is far from all right.

The piano-based "Set Me Up" is the devastating centerpiece of "Faith & Science," with a forlornly masochistic Nicholson embracing his role as a punching bag: "You can set me up/I don't mind at all/Cause I've been waiting/For something beautiful/To blow up in my face."

Other fine tracks round out the collection -- the gentle-but-driving "Safe and Sound," the electric alt-country "Always Be on Your Side," the kitschy-cool cover of Tom Waits' "Big in Japan," the wistful closer "Home."

Plus his wife, fellow Aussie singer-songwriter Kasey Chambers, surfaces for ginger backing vocal support on his simmering anxiety attack "Stolen Car" and delicately desperate "I Can Change."

Nicholson didn't need Chambers, but there's something comforting in knowing that she's there for him.

Rating: 4

"STEP INTO THE FUTURE," Scott Fisher & 1 a.m. Approach (1a.m. Approach)

Scott Fisher has the talent and looks to be the next John Mayer or Jack Johnson, though his uber-indie status makes his route to glory a little more treacherous.

However, thanks to a national-distribution deal, the Portland, Ore., native stands to carve out a little piece of the action with "Step Into the Future."

The former classical-piano student and philosophy/political science major at Boston University puts his background to work on his appealing new release, which is efficiently produced and meticulously arranged to showcase a compassionate and thoughtful Fisher.

The performer supports his emotive voice with fluid keyboards, and more than just Mayer and Johnson come to mind: Imagine a little Ben Folds, Jamie Cullum and solo Sting, among others, in the equation.

The loose, piano-based pop jazz of the title track sets the tone for the release, but Fisher layers other elements into the easygoing mix -- including peppy trumpet on "Shades of Blue" and reggae cadence on "No Remedy."

Fisher is always charming, even when he's a bit too lightweight ("Ces Jours La") or overreaching with the fusion shtick ("Atmosphere").

He also has an odd way of carefully enunciating his lines in contrast to the seemingly casual flow of music, but he uses that delivery to create a distinctive voice for himself.

Those vocals dovetail with the organic sound to ignite a warm vibe, the sincerity of which appears to be above reproach.

And when on "Android Love" Fisher sensitively sings, "Who is this girl? I don't know, she won't show me her heart," you can just hear him sealing the deal with romantics everywhere.

Rating: 3-1/2