The Murmurs (MCA)

If the Indigo Girls took a step back to the pop-lite harmonies of the '50s, they might sound like the Murmurs do here: treacly sweet, delicate and as full of girlishness as a life sentence at Lilith Fair.

Leisha Hailey and Heather Grody, two 26-year-old former New York City acting students who began playing together eight years ago on subway platforms and in downtown clubs, sometimes sashay over the line that divides delicate from flimsy. So on their third album, the duo is uncommonly dependent on studio drummers Abe Laboriel Jr. and Sherri Solinger to enliven things. Grody and Hailey, who wrote all the songs and are now based in Los Angeles, aren't exactly wordsmiths, settling for obvious titles like "Genius" paired with such uninspired lines as "She's kinda freaky/ She's kinda weird/ But I don't know/ I think she's a genius."

The Murmurs have a bright, engaging sound. They could use a bit of the bigger-voiced quality of k.d. lang, who produced six of the album's cuts. But then, who couldn't?

Bottom Line: Soft rock that's close to being frail

Sloan (Murderecords/Never Records Group)

Album of the week

In 1994 this pop quartet's second CD made Spin's list of the "10 Best Albums You Didn't Hear." Last year their third, One Chord To Another, despite critical acclaim comparing the jaunty tunemakers to the Beatles and Elvis Costello, was a musical mirage: It practically evaporated into thin air when EMI Records closed shop after corporate restructuring. Chalk it up to bad luck. Or to the band members' poor choice of birthplace. With their melodic, hook-heavy, '60s-style pop sound, appealing harmonies and sharp, ensemble songwriting skills, Sloan's passport could easily carry a British stamp. They are an import, indeed, but not from rockin' ol' England. They hail from Halifax, N.S., a Canadian province not known for launching pop invasions of the U.S. That may change with this nicely packaged, self-produced album. Some tunes, such as "C'mon C'mon (We're Gonna Get It Started)" and "Keep On Thinkin'," are as unabashedly Beatlesesque—with jangly guitars, spirited vocals, even hand claps and shouts of "yeah, yeah, yeah" propelling the appealing arrangements—as anything put out by Badfinger, Squeeze, Oasis and other bright, proudly derivative Brit pop outfits who have come before them.

Bottom Line: '60s-flavored pop served smokin' from Nova Scotia

Bic Runga (Columbia)

What's this? A pop diva from Down Under, or thereabouts, who never once appeared on a soap opera? Following on the heels of Australian daytime TV actresses-turned-singers Natalie Imbruglia and Kylie Minogue, Runga (who's actually a New Zealander by birth, with a Chinese mother and Maori father) has made a splash primarily on the strength of her musical talents.

Indeed, the 22-year-old singer brings ample gifts to this impressive debut, which was a huge hit in her native land. She is the CD's producer and arranger, wrote all the songs, plays guitar, xylophone, mellotron and, on one cut, even drums. Oh, one thing more: She sings, both lead and backup vocals, in a soothing, seductive style reminiscent of Sade. Nice and mellow on the surface, Runga's best tunes suggest the tensions that underpin many relationships—and a self-assurance well beyond her years.

Bottom Line: Impressive debut of a Kiwi with killer talent

Willie Nelson (Island)

Here is a typical line off this turgid album, from "The Maker," a ponderous tune by Nelson's producer Daniel Lanois: "Oh, oh, deep water/ Black and cold like the night/ I stand with arms wide open/ I've run a twisted line/ I'm a stranger in the eyes of the Maker."

That song is about God, so at least its seriousness has religious underpinnings. The other 13 songs, though, just seem thick and logy. Not even the usually exhilarating presence of Emmylou Harris, whose sweet, sublimely smooth voice is an ideal complement to Nelson's vinegar-and-sandpaper sound, can relieve the somber tone of tunes like "Darkness On the Face of the Earth" and "I've Just Destroyed the World." There are four new Nelson compositions here, mixed with other writers' tunes and such welcome Nelson standbys as "I Never Cared for You" and "My Own Peculiar Way." Now 65, Nelson is still in good voice; it's just not that entertaining to hear him sound more like an undertaker than an outlaw.

Bottom Line: This older Willie isn't the old Willie

>Edwin McCain

After only so-so success with his debut album, 28-year-old singer-songwriter Edwin McCain had hoped his follow-up, Misguided Roses, would do better. Instead his CD again seemed headed for the Dumpster—until its single "I'll Be" was featured on the season finale of Dawson's Creek last May. Now "I'll Be" is one of radio's most-played singles and, says McCain, producers of the teen drama are considering another of his songs, "Go Be Young," as a possible Dawson's Creek theme when the show returns in October.

Were you frustrated over the initial lukewarm response to Misguided Roses?

The strange thing for me is to have things going well. With our first record, sales never got better than the first week it came out, so when this record wasn't doing that well, it wasn't unfamiliar ground.

What do you hope to accomplish with your career?

It's not so much chart position as it is this prayer for longevity in the business. It is sometimes such a short-lived thing.

How are you dealing with success?

It never really seems real. I keep waiting for these guys in suits to show up and go, "Sorry, this isn't your life."

  • Contributors:
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Steve Dougherty,
  • Jeremy Helligar.