Kathie Lee Gifford (On the Lamb)

With none of her usual perkiness and not a word about kids Cody and Cassidy, hubby Frank or even Reege, Kathie Lee drops her coquettish TV schtick and proves herself an adept, even understated vocalist on this cycle of show tunes and pop standards about love's ebb and flow. The arrangements will not be everyone's cup of mocha; even Van Morrison's classic "Moondance" is denuded of its backbeat, and the syrup can slow things to a Lawrence Welk pace. But Gifford tells a moving love story here through songs like Joni Mitchell's "Circle Game" and tunes from Funny Girl, Fiddler on the Roof and The Fantastiks. Of course, Kathie Lee cannot resist good gossip, even when it's about herself. "Only My Pillow Knows," which she cowrote, alludes to marital bumps with Frank. "There is no chasm so steep as betrayal," she sings with surprising forthrightness, "no damage so deep to a heart."

Bottom Line: Real emotion amid the schmaltz

Pearl Jam (Epic)

The music style known as grunge isn't as popular as it used to be. But that hasn't stopped Seattle's Pearl Jam, currently celebrating its 10th anniversary, from continuing to pursue—with burning passion—the genre it came to define in the 1990s. Binaural may be Pearl Jam's sixth studio album, but the group plays with as much intensity here as it did on its first.

Pearl Jam's not-so-secret weapon is charismatic front man Eddie Vedder, 35, who fires the band's roiling rock and roll stew with his smoldering baritone and introspective lyrics. There are plenty of rock singers trying to sound like him these days. But none manage to capture Vedder's rare mix of machismo and vulnerability. Backed by dueling guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard, who effortlessly wheel out spidery, 1970s-style solos, Vedder imbues "Nothing as It Seems," the CD's mid-tempo first single, with a dark, burnished swagger reminiscent of the Doors' Jim Morrison. "Breaker-fall" struts forth with an arrogant bombast reminiscent of The Who in their prime.

But this is not, by any means, cutting edge. If anything, Pearl Jam's extended guitar jams and plodding earnestness sound a trifle quaint. But rock bands willing to put it on the line without relying on studio gimmickry or a flip attitude are in short supply. So if you're looking for modern rock in classic style, strap this one around your ears and turn up the volume.

Bottom Line: Originators of the Seattle sound go back to basics

Todd Snider (Oh Boy)

Album of the week

Music marketers will need to fashion a new pigeonhole for this bird of a decidedly different feather. A throwback to the days when young folkies like Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie sang with a twang in their voice, Snider is a singer-songwriter with an acute sense of humor and lament, who, like those 1960s-era troubadours, accompanies himself on guitar and blues harp. But it is his vivid songwriting that makes this Nashville cat one to watch. On "Forty Five Miles," Snider's lyrics stand out like the highway "flares burning out of the snow" he sings about. "Just in Case" is a modern fiancé's pitch for a prenup: "What's yours is yours/ And what is mine will always be mine." Gleefully mythologizing mysterious plane hijacker "D.B. Cooper," Snider recalls Woody Guthrie. And "Ballad of the Devil's Backbone Tavern," a hooting folk-swingalong tune, sounds like something from Woody's son Arlo. "What's Wrong with You" is a rocker you can imagine Jerry Lee Lewis belting out, and Snider leavens the earnest message of "Betty Was Black (and Willie Was White)" with Tom Petty's offhand drawl.

Bottom Line: Going his own witty way

  • Contributors:
  • Steve Dougherty,
  • Alec Foege.