PJ Harvey (Island)

Album of the week

"Is this desire enough to lift us higher?" Polly Jean Harvey wonders rhetorically on the title track of her riveting fifth album. Your own answer to this classic come-on will depend upon whether or not the British singer's sultry alto sends shivers down your spine. A critic's darling, Harvey combines certified hummability with an avant-garde urge to provoke. The album's gem is "Angelene," a lush, minor-key masterpiece (with muted electric guitars and eerie funeral-parlor organ) whose subject is the "prettiest mess you've ever seen." Though only 29, the native of rural Somerset imbues her gothic tales and stark arrangements with a world-weariness as convincing as that of a blues singer twice her age. A revelatory mix of classic rock, roadhouse R&B and cutting-edge dance music, Desire transcends the dark, brooding thoughts that no doubt inspired it.

Bottom Line: Near-perfect outing from rock's anti-diva

Joe Louis Walker (Verve)

It sounds like blues maestro Joe Louis Walker had today's headlines glued to his guitar case when he entered the historic Muscle Shoals Sound studios in Sheffield, Ala., last winter to record this rousing, rocking, gospel-tinged blues album. Or maybe Walker, whose songs of lust and contrition play like Bill Clinton's inner dialogues, simply got an early look at the Starr report. In his title cut, about a philandering politician who enjoys "Kissin' babies and the fine young girls," Walker sings, "I have sinned.... But I'm gonna change my ways/ Right before Judgment Day." And in "Repay My Love," Walker sounds like someone who has been felled by the flash of a thong: "You hypnotized me with all of your charms.... Is this the way that you repay my love?" Other selections could also have been inspired by the occupant of the Oval Office: "I'm Not Messin' Around," "Lyin' in the Name of Love," "Tell the Truth" and "My Real Fantasy" ("I've got a deep dark secret, baby").

The truth, of course, is that the San Francisco-based bluesman, whose clear, sturdy tenor voice and supple guitar lines lead the muscular Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (including celebrated guitarist Jimmy Johnson and organist Clayton Ivey), is actually working in an idiom much older than today's news. Chief Executive or not, Bill Clinton is not the first guy to suffer the blues.

Bottom Line: Timeless music given a timely context

Tony Bennett (Columbia/Sony Wonder)

Exposing little children to the sophisticated musical style of Bennett is clearly a good idea, even if they have to endure such painfully cute kiddie ditties as "Dat Dere," a precious, self-consciously hip Oscar Brown Jr. and Bobby Timmons tune. More felicitous are Bennett's gently swinging versions of such youth-friendly songs as "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive," "Swinging on a Star." and "When You Wish upon a Star." Bennett is joined, happily, by Sesame Street's Elmo on "Little Things" and by Kermit the Frog on "Bein' Green." Rosie O'Donnell appears too, on "Put on a Happy Face," managing to restrain her usual braying but also keeping the melody at arm's length. Bennett is no Bing Crosby, but he sounds comfortable enough with children. He has fathered four of them, one of whom, son Danny, coproduced this album with him.

Bottom Line: Excellent gift for children

Bette Midler (Warner Bros.)

The title of Midler's 17th album promises delight, alluding as it does to her early '70s incarnation as the Divine Miss M, the vampy, campy and bawdacious singer who entertained at the Continental Baths, then one of New York City's gay men's clubs. And so the sentimental, string-soaked opening track "Song of Bernadette" seems more reminiscent of her late-'80s Grammy-winning doppelgänger ("Wind Beneath My Wings"), and out of place here. A windy ode that shows off her gorgeous voice but not a jot of her humor, the song would have been better left to Celine Dion. But Midler redeems herself on "I'm Beautiful," in which her old, Divine Miss M persona returns, hawking her own "cosmic fabulosity," and she keeps up her Mae-West-meets-the-Andrews-Sisters schtick with songs like "Ukulele Lady," "I'm Hip" and "One Monkey Don't Stop No Show." But Midler has more than gags and good humor to sell. "Lullaby in Blue," a mother's bittersweet song for a daughter long ago put up for adoption, is beautiful and heartrending.

Bottom Line: One lame track but otherwise divine

Hank Williams (Mercury)

During a brief career that ended with his untimely death at 29 in 1953, Williams all but defined modern country music, fusing R&B with western swing, gospel-influenced country and tale-telling folk music. This 10-CD, 225-track set, commemorating his 75th birthday, amply demonstrates how affecting and influential he was.

Williams's untrained voice was painfully nasal, but his Alabama drawl had a certain charm, and Juilliard only wishes it could teach the catch-yodel that added emotional grace notes to his style. Subject to depression and binge drinking, he crafted a lot of awfully maudlin pop songs, but he was witty enough to write "My hair's still curly and my eyes're still blue/ Why don't you love me like you used to do?" He also created an astonishing array of crossover hits, including "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Hey, Good Lookin' " and "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love with You"). Apart from a few cuts, this sizable set is musically satisfying and historically fascinating.

Bottom Line: Deserving tribute to Nashville's Gershwin

>Elvis Costello

Protean British songwriter Elvis Costello has dabbled in everything from bone-crunching New Wave rock to classical compositions over the years. Now Costello, 44, has teamed with pop songmeister Burt Bacharach, 69, on an album of richly orchestrated heartbreak ballads titled Painted from Memory.

How did you two get together?

In 1995 we were asked to collaborate on a song for the Grace of My Heart [movie] soundtrack. Afterward I said, "Why don't we try writing a whole record that feels like this?"

What's Burt like to work with?

Very intense. He's very charming but very definite in his ideas, and that's a terrific combination.

What was the first Bacharach song you remember hearing?

His songs were on the radio [in England] all the time, not only [sung by] Dionne Warwick but by English singers covering her records. I think "Walk On By" was the first I heard Dionne Warwick sing.

What's your favorite Bacharach song?

I think "Are You There (with Another Girl)" is my favorite.

Does this album signal a new direction for you?

I went from the studio with Burt to a festival in Japan, playing alongside Garbage and Sonic Youth. So I still know how to do that. But I don't want to only do that.

  • Contributors:
  • Alec Foege,
  • Steve Dougherty,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Marisa Sandora.