Vonda Shepard (Jacket)

Poor thing. If this album were a message in a bottle, it would read: "Help me, Vonda." Like the title character in her friend David E. Kelley's Ally McBeal TV show, Shepard is deeply into self-confession. She also appears to be a woman of unrealistic hopes, as she suggests in the title track of this, her followup to last year's Songs from Ally McBeal: "By 7:30," she sings forlornly, "fall in love with me." Other tunes tell of personal struggles. In "Mercy," it is low self-esteem ("I feel like a can, kick myself down the street") and in "Venus Is Breaking," we hear about unrequited love—in Shepard's down-at-the-mouth world, there seems to be no other kind. As she succinctly puts it in an inadvertently comic phrase: "I'm in love with this man and I feel so lame..." Even lamer, she grabs awkwardly at New Age straws: "If I can only feel my bliss," she sings in "Clear." Shepard sings with folksy passion, and the piano and guitar arrangements mark an improvement over her last album. Unfortunately, By 7:30 abounds with so many wacky lyric constructions ("there was a red flag waving in my ears"), you may miss the rare moments when Shepard does stop navel-gazing. Consider the welcome touch of wit she provides on "Confetti," a tune about kids with 14-karat nose rings: "The children of elite/ Tryin' to be street."

Bottom Line: Glum going

June Carter Cash (Risk/Small Hairy Dog)

Album of the week

Fame has always been relative for June Carter Cash, 69. Uncle A.R and aunt Sara Carter—along with June's mother, Maybelle—were country music's First Family. And when the original Carter Family disbanded around 1943, June joined her mother and sisters, Helen and Anita, playing Autoharp and performing comedy routines with the Carter Sisters. Joined here by her ailing husband, Johnny Cash, daughter Rosie (backing vocals), ex-sons-in-law Marty Stuart (mandolin) and Rodney Crowell (guitar), and son John Carter Cash (producer), June takes a welcome step into the limelight. Recorded at her Henderson-ville, Tenn., home studio, Press On includes her take on A.P. Carter's "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" as well as her own "Ring of Fire." That song alone disproves her self-disparaging liner note—"me, with no talent at all." With her wistful humor and the warm, family-sing spirit of this album, June can hold her head high.

Bottom Line: Grand ole country

Various artists (Capitol)

These aren't your children's divas. The women singing on this fascinating collection, in fact, aren't all actual singers. There are a number of full-time pros—like Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, Nina Simone, Eartha Kitt, Shirley Bassey and Yma Sumac. But most of the mainly novelty material here runs to such things as Marilyn Monroe breathing out "Heatwave," Jayne Mansfield, trying hard on the dopey "That Makes It," Marlene Dietrich sounding like '60s sing-song king Chris Montez on "Near You," and Ann-Margret, at the peak of her self-parodying sex-bomb phase, reading way too much into "Let Me Entertain You," from Gypsy. For sheer hard-core tackiness, though, it's impossible to beat "Don't Touch My Tomatoes," as warbled by Josephine Baker.

Bottom Line: Yet another testament to the wisdom of keeping your day job

Owsley (Giant/Warner Bros.)

A long strange trip indeed. Distant kin to the infamous '60s LSD chemist of the same British family name, Will Owsley is a 30-year-old pop phenom waiting—and waiting—to happen. A former member of the Semantics, a once promising young band that included pianist Ben Folds, the Anniston, Ala., native spent four years under the tutelage of pop producer Peter Asher fine-tuning a Semantics album that was never released. Now, having recorded this solo debut—an album shimmering with pop craft and chock-full of engaging vocals, ringing harmonies and terrific, airplay-ready tunes—Owsley is finally poised for overnight success.

Bottom Line: A peak pop performance

>RISING SON Big Bill Morganfield (Blind Pig) The son of blues legend Muddy Waters (né McKinley Morgan-field), Big Bill mines his own and daddy's musical stores, with help from Muddy sidemen like pianist extraordinaire Pinetop Perkins.

THE GYPSY ROAD Various artists (Alula) For 1,000 years Roma (Gypsies) have traveled the ancient migratory trail from India to Spain. Their emotional, celebratory and haunting music is captured on this compilation of 14 tunes by the world's top Roma artists.

VIRGIN VOICES: A TRIBUTE TO MADONNA Various artists (Cleopatra) Dance club divas (Loleatta Holloway, Boy George) and denizens (The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black) pay techno-flavored homage to the icon they all wanna be.

>Michael Kamen

Best known as a composer of film scores (Die Hard, Mr. Holland's Opus), Kamen, 51, will see his new "Symphony for the Millennium" performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in January. But the London-based composer may take a head-banger's bow April 21 and 22 when he conducts the San Francisco Symphony in concert with hard-rock kings Metallica.

Can an orchestra take on Metallica?

Classical musicians are unfairly judged as mild-mannered characters. They have as much passion and juice as any rock and roller.

Won't the orchestra be overwhelmed?

We aren't just adding a few players to sweeten a rock song. We're adding big weapons. We're amplifying the orchestra a lot. We'll be making a lot of noise.

Who will be in the audience?

Mostly Metallica fans and people who love symphonic music. And a few blue-haired ladies who come to see what their orchestra is up to. Hopefully, they'll all wear their earplugs.

Will you conduct with a chain saw?

I'll use a baton. If I have to light the damn thing on fire, I will.

  • Contributors:
  • Steve Dougherty,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Ellen Lieberman.