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Soak your tootsies: Me'Shell Ndegeocello.
  • Soak your tootsies: Me'Shell Ndegeocello.

Me'Shell Ndegeocello
Bitter
(Maverick)

On her third album, the artfully crafted and oh-so-somber Bitter, Me'Shell Ndegeocello slows down the funky R&B of her previous two discs and fashions a mood piece best suited for late-night listens and kisses. It's a sultry piece of work that takes its time getting to where it's going, and if the payoff isn't the big score one expects from a boundary-breaking artist such as Ndegeocello, the result is nonetheless soothing and sweet.

Stalking musical ground like a weathered jazz singer in search of the perfect groove, Ndegeocello warms herself by candlelight for these love songs that celebrate the glory of amore. She barely breaks a sweat, and the cunning postfeminist, equal-opportunity/I-got-mine lovergirl pose that she exhibited on such past work as "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)" and "Who Is He and What Is He to You" is nowhere to be found on Bitter. Instead, she plays her role as slow seducer in both charming and mystical ways. These aren't immediate grabbers. Soak in them, though, and you'll hear what Ndegeocello is up to.

Some of the arty pretension of 1996's Peace Beyond Passion is held over here ("Adam" and "Eve" are two of the songs), but the wordy heart plays of the past two albums are mostly replaced by one-word titles — reflecting the beautiful simplicity of the songs themselves — this time around. This isn't a pop album or even an R&B album; Bitter is an adult work that evokes both inner struggle and personal peace. — Michael Gallucci

Duke Robillard
New Blues for Modern Man
(Shanachie)

Duke Robillard's biggest talents, in descending order, are as an arranger, a guitarist, and a bandleader. That's why he can make records that command attention despite the fact the songs in the hands of a lesser talent would sound bland and pedestrian.

On New Blues for Modern Man, Robillard the arranger has taken the often-covered "Pony Blues" of Charley Patton and rewritten the thing. If it weren't for the lyrics, one would hardly know this is the same song an itinerant plantation worker recorded in the '20s with just his guitar and guttural wail.

The cover of Bob Dylan's "Love Sick," a song on which Robillard played when it was originally recorded two years ago, succeeds equally well. Where Dylan's version was dark and brooding in its sparseness, Robillard's is fleshed out with punchy guitar licks and dirge-like saxophone playing while keeping the mood as depressing as the composer meant it to be.

On his own numbers, Robillard's guitar takes over. The instrumental breaks on songs like "Fishnet" and "Good Man," written by baritone sax player Doug James, are as good as a guitar can get. Add a little flamenco guitar on "You're the Only One" and a dose of New Orleans shuffle on "Jumpin' Rockin' Rhythm," and you can see Robillard has a clear picture of where he wants to go on everything he does.

Robillard's guitar is fluent in straight blues, jump blues, swing, R&B, and jazz. New Blues for Modern Man is another good showcase for his career. — Gallucci

Robyn Hitchcock
Jewels for Sophia
(Warner Bros.)

The ways of Robyn Hitchcock aren't the ways of traditional rock artists. For one thing, Hitchcock — despite a brief flirtation with modern rock radio at the top of the decade — has never really grown out of his cult status. For another, his surreal tales of frogs, flesh, and lightbulb-headed people just aren't the material of someone headed for the big time. And Hitchcock seems perfectly happy with things this way. His records have become increasingly challenging over the past few years (to the point where even dedicated fans are a bit perplexed by all of his musical and lyrical shenanigans), almost consciously weeding out casual listeners along the way, not to mention probably alienating his record company.

Maybe that's why Jewels for Sophia sounds like a commercial compromise on Hitchcock's part. At least a concession as far as Hitchcock can manage (after all, there's a song about cheese here, not your run-of-the-mill pop song subject). It's his most accessible recording since 1991's Perspex Island and a welcome return to the quirky bursts of pop that he does best. With guests Scott McCaughey, Kurt Bloch, Tad Hutchinson (from the late, lamented Young Fresh Fellows), Peter Buck, Grant Lee Phillips, and former Soft Boy cohort Kimberley Rew (who went on to form Katrina and the Waves after his stint in that post-pop British combo) helping out, Jewels for Sophia is also Hitchcock's most rock-oriented album since his classic Fegmania/Element of Light period of the mid-'80s.

That doesn't make any of these songs any more appealing to venture-challenged pop fans, however. Hitchcock doesn't make wallpaper sounds; his lyrical loops expect you to follow along closely. It's easy to get lost in his "poetry," but Hitchcock has never been an easy listen. On the most fundamental of levels, Jewels for Sophia is a pop album with some closely guarded tunes that are more conventional, melodically at least, than he would probably care to admit. And even some tender, earnest love songs creep into the mix this time. But it's the stream-of-consciousness accounts of "NASA Clapping" and Gene Hackman that best celebrate the album's weary but peculiar Hitchcockisms. — Gallucci

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