Learning How to Smile
Everclear (Capitol)

The fourth album from this ever-clever trio plays like the soundtrack to frontman Art Alexakis's L.A. youth in the late '60s and '70s. A throwback to the more melodic pop of that era, Songs is a concept album that takes its inspiration from such musical heroes as Otis Redding (on a string-drenched ballad named for him), Van Morrison (on a faithful cover of "Brown Eyed Girl") and Jean Knight (on "AM Radio," which judiciously uses the guitar riff from her 1971 hit "Mr. Big Stuff"). But for those fans who may think Everclear—Craig Montoya (bass), Greg Eklund (drums) and Alexakis—has lost its alt-rock edge, the band promises Vol. Two: Good-Time for a Bad Attitude later this year.

Bottom Line: Clear-cut pleaser

Lara Fabian (Columbia)

Great as she was—and no pop singer has ever been more expressive—Edith Piaf also set unfortunate precedents. Histrionics aside, Piaf's aggressive approach to lyrics (she could sound angry at the words) influenced generations of singers, beginning with her most famous disciple, Barbra Streisand, and continuing, to a lesser degree, with Mariah Carey, Celine Dion (most egregiously) and now, to an extent, newcomer Lara Fabian.

Born in Belgium and currently living in Quebec, Fabian, 29, does indulge in some big Piaf-like singing, as well as some Madonnaesque faux cuteness. Her approach, however, is generally unaffected, with an easy lilt reminiscent of another European-born singer, Basia.

The major weakness of this album—Fabian's first in English—is the banality of its songs. Fabian, who cowrote many of them, has only herself to blame for such lyrics as "I don't know where to find you/I don't know how to reach you/I hear your voice in the wind/I feel you under my skin." Most unfortunate is "I Am Who I Am," which evokes images of Fabian ripping the tops off spinach cans. Like Basia and Dion, Fabian's English is flavored with a mild accent. If she mutes the overwrought style and finds better material, it will only charm.

Bottom Line: Welcome new import

Richard Ashcroft (Virgin)

Album of the week

Never has the role of the self-worshipping, ego-tripping rock star been portrayed as sharply as by Ashcroft, the lanky former lead of the Verve, who sent up himself in a memorable video for the British band's 1997 hit "Bitter Sweet Symphony." Looking like a cross between Mick Jagger and Patti Smith, Ashcroft strutted down a busy city sidewalk, pushing aside mothers with prams, schoolchildren, commuters and other mere mortals unlucky enough to cross his path.

Now, alas, the Verve is defunct, having fallen victim to its members' volatile egos. Here, on his first solo album, Ashcroft, 28, returns with his musical swagger undiminished. And justifiably so. As he did with the Verve, Ashcroft sings compelling romantic laments that brim with bruised soul. With lush, soaring melodies and propulsive guitars set against string and horn arrangements held in tight rhythmic rein, these 11 power ballads, statements of regret and pledges to reform, percolate and seethe with muted emotion.

Bottom Line: Symphonic soul

En Vogue (Elektra)

At their height in the early '90s, En Vogue ruled as the queens of smart R&B. Sexy, sassy, elegant and edgy, the foursome were blessed with luscious voices and lip-smacking looks. With hits like "Hold On," "My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It)" and "Whatta Man," the group sold four million albums in two years. But then, in 1997, lead singer Dawn Robinson departed from the group, leaving Cindy Herron, Maxine Jones and Terry Ellis to soldier on as a trio. Here, En Vogue is reunited with Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy, the production and writing team behind their earlier success. Unfortunately, the old magic seems lacking. The first Masterpiece single is far from being one: "Riddle" is a laundry list of relationship woes that runs too long and rings too false. ("It's the weekend and you know that's the day I do my cleaning.") And the rest of the album is equally inane. Sadly, the self-proclaimed "Funky Divas" now sound more like divas in a funk.

Bottom Line: Out of vogue

>Joe

Growing up the son of two

Pentecostal ministers in Georgia, Joe Thomas had to toe the line. "I wasn't allowed to listen to anything but gospel music in my parents' house," the R&B crooner, now 26, recalls. But his life changed in 1988 when he heard the rap song "Move the Crowd" by Eric B. & Rakim. "Ever since then," he says, "I was all about hip hop."

These days the former musical director of his father's church choir is better known simply as Joe. Although his first two efforts—1993's Everything and 1997's All That I Am—were well-received, neither scored popular breakthroughs. But his new album, My Name Is Joe, has gone platinum, "I Wanna Know" is a Top 10 single on Billboard's pop chart, and he sees a new beginning. "This album is like an introduction to my music," says Thomas, who lives in New Jersey.

But the son of a preacher man may be better known than he thought. Last year at an Atlanta restaurant, Mariah Carey (who sings a duet with Joe on her song "Thank God I Found You") told him she was a fan. "I was shocked she knew who I was," he says, "let alone inviting me to her table."

>TONIGHT AND THE REST OF MY LIFE Nina Gordon (Warner Bros.) With melodic hooks and delightfully grand statements ("I understand everything, and now I can die"), the ex-Veruca Salter fearlessly goes solo.

CLAIRVOYANCE Johnny Society (Messenger) Living up to a name that's tops in pop, the New York City trio enlists knowing song craft and rare instrumentation (accordion, harpsichord).

DWIGHTYOAKAMACOUSTIC.NET Dwight Yoakam (Reprise) Don't be fooled by the cybertitle. The only thing high-tech about this lovely collection of 25 voice and guitar gems is the microphone.

  • Contributors:
  • Chuck Arnold,
  • Joseph V. Tirella,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Steve Dougherty,
  • Amy Linden.