Duncan Sheik (Nonesuch)

Album of the week
STARS "1"

Mellow doesn't begin to describe this folkish new album from one of the most admired singer-songwriters of the last decade. Maybe that's because Phantom Moon is a collaboration between that songwriter, Sheik, 30, and New York playwright Steven Sater, 38, who met through a Buddhist organization. Featuring songs that positively levitate on Sheik's buttery voice and quietly picked acoustic guitar, the CD occupies an otherworldly state of calm. In contrast with the romantic longing of Sheik's previous efforts, Sater's lyrics add a heady, contemplative air. British '70s singers Cat Stevens and Nick Drake are obvious influences, but Sheik, who grew up in South Carolina, adds some distinctly American-heartland heft. Groove-based songs like "This Is How My Heart Heard" and "A Mirror in the Heart" suggest laid-back country rockers like the Eagles.

Bottom Line: Pop singer hits a higher plane

Pam Tillis (Arista Nashville)

Lighten up, Pam. When she uses a little wit (as on 1992's "Cleopatra, Queen of Denial"), Tillis, 43, proves she doesn't always have to play the drama queen. But whatever other qualities this album may have, levity appears to be on vacation. From the strident title tune, about a woman who wants both the thunder of passion and the roses of romance, to the preachy "Be a Man," Tillis keeps the intensity level at full blast.

Nor is there much subtlety. Even "If I Didn't Love You," whose title evokes the sublimely understated old Ink Spots tune "If I Didn't Care," hurls its message right in listeners' ears rather than respecting our ability to get the message. The album's sappy first single, "Please," slows things to a molasses pace. Only the vague irony of "Off White," about a woman choosing a wedding outfit for a second-time-around romance, suggests a bit of playfulness.

To make matters worse, a tag team of four coproducers keeps the musicians smothered in big, sweeping arrangements, even when a nice, quiet acoustic guitar solo might relieve some of the pressure.

On a sunnier note, the CD's hidden bonus track is a bonus indeed, as Tillis sings the ballad "Waiting on the Wind" with a country music icon, her dad, Mel, 68.

Bottom Line: Stormy production, thorny result

John Anderson (Columbia Nashville)

Like Johnny Cash, country singer Anderson has enough swagger (not to mention sense of rhythm) to sing Bruce Springsteen songs. So even though Springsteen's New Jersey isn't exactly down home to Floridian Anderson, his version of "Atlantic City" is earthy, suggestive, energetic, intense and downright Boss. The rest of this album, Anderson's first since 1997, is equally entertaining. Even the perilously close to self-pitying "It Ain't Easy Being Me" is redeemed by the refrain ("I had to work real hard to be the jerk I am"). Alongside his rough-and-tumble sense of humor on tunes like "You Ain't Hurt Nothin' Yet," Anderson's warm baritone also allows him to get romantic ("I Love You Again"). Dixie Chicks coproducers Blake Chancey and Paul Worley lend their savvy country flair. In his 24-year career, Anderson has recorded 23 Top 10 hits. And by the sound of this album, there are plenty more to come.

Bottom Line: Honky tonk he-man

>BEHIND THAT LIGHT Monica Ramos (Climate) Cool jazz, warm heart. Talk about world music: On this Spanish-language CD, Ramos, a Chilean-born, classically trained harpist and singer who lives in Sweden, blends classical aesthetics with a passionate, airy beat.

PETALS: THE MINNIE RIPERTON COLLECTION Minnie Riperton (Right Stuff/Capitol) The vocal virtuoso with an ethereal five-plus-octave range died of cancer at 31 in 1979, but her savvy jazz-pop soprano soars again on this joyous two-disc set.

  • Contributors:
  • Alec Foege,
  • Ralph Novak.