Jo Dee Messina (Curb)

Album of the week

With her Mae West-meets-Janis Joplin persona, Messina isn't likely to end up doing one of those commercials in which a frail-voiced singer with a Lilith Fair whine rhapsodizes over house paint or eyeglasses. More power to her. Messina is a country artist who isn't afraid to let her voice sound lived-in. When she sings about the wisdom of "rolling with the punches," she makes it sound as if she knows whereof she sings.

A follow-up to I'm Alright, her 1998 breakthrough album, Burn brims with gritty, penetrating tunes such as "Down Time," "Saturday Night" and "Bring On the Rain," on which Messina's pal (and the album's coproducer) Tim McGraw duets. The album could use a change of pace or two, but Messina's rough-hewn charm, reminiscent of '70s country singer Lacy J. Dalton, is ingratiatingly unaffected.

Bottom Line: The first of the new red-hot mamas

Dogstar (Ultimatum)

One need only consider the stillborn music careers of Bruce Willis and William Shatner to realize what Keanu Reeves is up against. By continuing to play with his Los Angeles-based trio Dogstar and wanting to be taken seriously as a musician, Reeves—the hero of such films as Speed and The Matrix—has turned himself into an easy target for music critics. But unlike Willis and Shatner, Reeves, 35, can actually play. He even cowrote five of the 11 tracks on Happy Ending, his band's first U.S. release. And he's savvy enough here to let his talented bandmates—vocalist-guitarist Bret Domrose and drummer Rob Mailhouse—take most of the spotlight while he anchors the band's rhythmic attack with his rock-steady bass guitar. While no one will confuse his playing with that of such melodic masters as Paul McCartney or The Who's John Entwistle, Reeves's work is solid.

Which is all that Dogstar's music requires. The band makes the sort of simple power pop that went out of fashion with the likes of Soul Asylum and Sugar. And with guitars soaring on tracks like "Alarming" and "Swim," Dogstar even serves up a bit of ear candy (in an early Pearl Jam sort of way), as well as an excellent cover of Leon Russel's "Superstar," updated here with a dreamy trip-hop intro and coda. In a world saturated with Backstreet Boys and 'N Syncs, a little old-fashioned rock goes a long way.

Bottom Line: Honest if uneven effort

Chris Whitley (Valley)

After allowing his inner Hendrix to come out to play, loudly, on his aptly named Din of Ecstasy in 1995, Whitley returned to his own brand of acoustic blues on 1997's Dirt Floor, a CD that seemed as haunted as a Delta graveyard. Both albums showcased Whitley's gifts as a guitarist, singer and lyricist. Here the 39-year-old Texan concentrates on his most expressive instrument, his voice. Sounding like Chet Baker singing Robert Johnson, Whitley gives minimalist, jazz-flavored treatments to 11 blues, folk and rock tunes—some well-known, some eccentric, all thickly atmospheric and bristling with sharp imagery and surprising vocal twists.

With Billy Martin on upright bass and drummer Chris Wood (both of the jazzy jam band Medeski, Martin & Wood), Whitley bookends the album with two of Bob Dylan's wildly offbeat love songs, "Spanish Harlem Incident" (from 1964's Another Side of Bob Dylan) and "4th Time Around" (from Blonde on Blonde). In between comes a spooky version of "Smokestack Lightning," which Whitley and Co. somehow make sound both swampy and industrial, Hendrix's lyrical "Drifting" and Johnson's exquisitely tortured "Stones in My Passway." On the Doors' "Crystal Ship," Whitley's voice morphs from a desolate bluesman's cry to a moaning croon.

Bottom Line: Blues, smoldering and incandescent

Mötley Crüe (Beyond)

The hoariest of the hair bands, Mötley Crüe makes a disingenuous return. Although vocalist Vince Neil, bassist Nikki Sixx and guitarist Mick Mars are all back, this present-day lineup simply ain't the same old Crüe without the drumming of Tommy Lee, whose big, irresistible beat made the band sound more fun than mindless. Without the gleeful urgency of Lee's pounding, the lads (with replacement drummer Randy Castillo) seem to have lost both their thunder and their self-deflating humor. Neil's voice is as thin as worn spandex, and each track follows the same CLICK CLICK POW shotgun rhythm. The lyric beauty of "Girls, Girls, Girls" aside, the Crüe have never been bards of the profound. But they push the envelope of inanity here with tunes like the title track, which is meant to be a powerful romantic ballad about the permanence of love but by the end goes flat as a whoopee cushion. "Dragstrip Superstar" closes with the words "Dragstrip dragstrip/ Superstar superstar" chanted over and over for a full half minute. Despite the inherent self-satire of such odes as "White Punks on Dope," "Fake" and "1st Band on the Moon," Neil, alas, sings the title refrain of "Punched in the Teeth by Love" without a trace of irony. And it is hard to resist taking him up on the challenge of "Treat Me like the Dog I Am." The new Crüe needs Lee's swift kick.

Bottom Line: Crude

Steve Earle (E-Squared/Artemis)

He's got enough ex-wives, arrests, empty bottles and drug recovery stories to inspire a hundred country tunes. But what makes Steve Earle such a magnificent songwriter—and Transcendental Blues one of the great country albums of this year—is how the darkness in his soul ignites such soaring, lovely songs. A process that perhaps inspired the last lines of the title track: "Back roads never carry you where you want 'em to/ They leave you standin' there with the ol' transcendental blues." Partially recorded in Ireland and produced by the twangtrust, the studio team (led by Earle) behind Lucinda Williams's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Blues reveals his restless musicality, with forays into Celtic and folk music and psychedelic rock, as in "Everyone's in Love with You," whose backwards-tape coda would fit on the Beatles' Revolver. Earle country, it seems, is as big as the whole outdoors.

Bottom Line: Great trip

  • Contributors:
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Joseph V. Tirella,
  • Steve Dougherty,
  • Peter Ames Carlin.