Dave Matthews Band (RCA)

Anchored by lead singer and songwriter Matthews's chugging rhythm guitar, Stefan Lessard's adventurous bass lines and Carter Beauford's jazz-fueled time-keeping, DMB thrives on improvisations that blur the boundaries between rock, jazz and world music. This time out, with the help of producer Glen Ballard (Alanis Morissette, No Doubt), the band forgoes the rawness of its last CD, Before These Crowded Streets, for the middle of the road. A tune like "The Space Between," a typically earnest Matthews ballad, gets Ballard's trademark pop sheen, but the spit-and-polish can't hide clumsy lyrics, and little can be done for the song's overall blandness. The band swings back into its engaging hybrid sound on the spooky "Sleep to Dream Her" and the optimistic title track, but neither these songs nor a cameo by Carlos Santana, who sits in on "Mother Father," can lift this album from the pop morass.

Bottom Line: Humdrum

3LW (Epic)

While the teen-pop market has been dominated by boy bands such as 'N Sync and Backstreet Boys and female solo artists such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, girl groups are now starting to get in on the act. Dream, the foursome launched by Sean "Puffy" Combs, recently hit the Top 10 with its debut album It Was All a Dream and first single "He Loves U Not." And 3LW (which stands for 3 Little Women) is hoping to follow Dream up the charts with its freshman collection.

Whereas Dream recalls early Spice Girls, the diminutive trio of Adrienne Bailon, 17, Naturi Naughton, 16, and Kiely Williams, 14, is more of a cross between elder sister acts Destiny's Child and TLC, though both groups have done this kind of urban pop-R&B mélange a lot better. Although 3LW injects such hip-hop-inflected tracks as "No More (Baby I'ma Do Right)" and "Is You Feelin' Me" with the requisite amounts of you-go-girl attitude and grammar-grating slang, they lack the memorable melodies, distinctive vocals and state-of-the-street production that mark the best work of Destiny's Child and TLC.

The girls of 3LW also seem a tad young for some of the songs that have been written for them, including "Playas Gon' Play," which is about bed-hopping boys. Still, they show plenty of teen spirit when given more age-appropriate material such as "Crush on You" and "More Than Friends (That's Right)," the disc's standout tune.

Bottom Line: Little Women not quite ready for the big time

Gladys Knight (MCA)

It has been more than six years since Gladys Knight recorded her last pop-R&B album, Just for You, which may explain the title of her new solo disc. In that time the soul legend has released an inspirational CD (1999's Many Different Roads), published her autobiography (1997's Between Each Line of Pain and Glory) and, with her longtime backup vocal trio the Pips, has been inducted into both the Rock and Roll and Rhythm & Blues halls of fame. But At Last makes clear that, after some four decades of recording, Knight is far from ready to call it a career. She's in fine voice on tasteful ballads like "Love Hurts" and "Please Help Me I'm Falling (In Love with You)." The highlight, though, is Knight's down-home, gospelized cover of Bill Withers's "Grandma's Hands."

Bottom Line: A very good Knight indeed

Mirwais (Epic)

Album of the week
STARS "1"

Back in the '60s, when Elvis wannabe Johnny Hallyday was making Parisian girls swoon, lots of people thought French pop music was a bit of a joke. No more. Now a breeding ground for cutting-edge techno acts, France's club scene made the world music map following Madonna's discovery of Parisian producer Mirwais Ahmadzai, with whom she collaborated on her popular Music CD. If the intriguing blend of blips and beats on that collection caught your ear, then Mirwais's American debut may just be your cup of café au lait.

Mirwais's strength is bringing a multitextured warmth to electronica, a genre that often feels sterile and mechanical. A former rock musician, Mirwais nimbly layers rubbery disco rhythms with punctuated drum patterns and all sorts of percolating studio effects. He also makes moody atmospherics, as on the understated "Paradise (Not for Me)," which features a guest vocal by Ms. M herself.

Bottom Line: Dazzling French dance set

 

>Monica Mancini

So great was the pop upheaval wrought by the Beatles four decades ago that two of the greatest songwriters of the pre-Liverpudlian era found themselves ignored by even their nearest and dearest fans. "I was a Beatlemaniac," admits Monica Mancini, whose father, Henry, composed dozens of hit songs ("Moon River," "Days of Wine and Roses") before his death in 1994. Many of them were collaborations with lyricist, vocalist and frequent house guest Johnny Mercer, who died in 1976, leaving a trove of unpublished lyrics. "I noticed Johnny was around a lot, but I never had a true appreciation for who he was."

Nicely making up for the lapse, Mancini, 47, who lives in L.A. with husband Gregg Field, 45, a drummer and producer, devotes her second solo album, The Dreams of Johnny Mercer, to 12 Mercer tunes; seven of them were set to music by Barry Manilow, a family friend. A longtime studio singer for pop acts (Michael Jackson, Kenny Rogers) and film soundtracks (Batman), Mancini filled her self-titled 1999 debut album with her father's tunes. Mercer too is a labor of love. "He sang with great humor and great passion," she says. "I wanted to stay true to that."

Read Chuck Arnold's Music Buzz column at www.people.com or AOL (Keyword: People)

>MUSIC FROM MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE Various Artists (Restless) Call it Malcolm Pop: Short, sharp and quirky, these 17 tracks, led by They Might Be Giants' show theme, "Boss of Me," proves that TV music has come a long way.

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  • Contributors:
  • Marie Elsie St. Léger,
  • Chuck Arnold,
  • Amy Linden,
  • Karen Brailsford.