Tom Waits (Anti)

Tom Waits's voice is a rough beast looming in the watery depths of the unconscious—call it Lake Eerie. It could be the missing link between Bob Dylan and Cookie Monster.

Dividing the bizarrely playful from the darkly weird, Waits is releasing two separate CDs at once. Alice, inspired by Alice in Wonderland, was written (but never recorded) as an opera in 1992. It's a Dali music hall in which psychedelic lyrics and instruments (calliope, mellowtron) chase each other in circles. Its kaleidoscope colors give way to shades of red and black on Blood Money (written to accompany a musical called Woyzeck), which sounds like a Dixieland jazz funeral in which the dead come out to pop a cork. The power of the extraordinary lyrics by Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan, creates a swirl of dread that pulls you in like an undertow as they warn of strange apocalypse and shredded love: "If there's one thing you can say about mankind/ There's nothing kind about man," Waits sings, or barks. If his demons don't make you shiver, check to make sure you're not wearing a toe tag.

Bottom Line: Madly mesmerizing

Lauryn Hill (Columbia)

Album of the week

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"Fantasy is what people want, but reality is what they need. And I've just retired from the fantasy part." So proclaims a resurrected Lauryn Hill before launching into one of the 13 new songs on this intimate two-disc collection, on which she dismisses the hip-hop beats of her hallmark 1998 album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill for austere acoustic soul. Recording during the taping of last July's MTV Unplugged concert in New York City (which premiered on MTV2 in March) the former Fugee, accompanied only by her own acoustic guitar, becomes, as she jokingly puts it, a "hip-hop folk singer."

Folk-steeped tunes such as "I Find It Hard to Say (Rebel)"—which Hill wrote after New York City cops shot and killed an unarmed man in 1999—display a keen social awareness. In true coffeehouse style, she talks about the genesis of songs and offers other personal insight in jabbering interludes (one more than 12 minutes) that disrupt the flow of the record. That and the performance's technical flaws—Hill's voice sometimes cracks, and her guitar playing is not always crisp—may be somewhat off-putting. Even so, it only makes Hill more real.

Bottom Line: Hill climbs back strong

Vanessa Carlton (A&M)

Okay, so who will be the other four nominees for Best New Artist at next year's Grammys? With Carlton's impressive debut album, the 21-year-old singer-pianist will likely strike a chord with Grammy voters, just as she already has with TRL countdown voters. More accessible than Tori Amos and less angry than Fiona Apple, this piano woman promptly landed a Top 10 hit with her glorious first single, "A Thousand Miles." With its nifty keyboard work, sweeping strings and bittersweet lyrics, it's easily one of this year's best singles.

Nearly as terrific is the disc's opener, "Ordinary Day," on which the classically trained Carlton, who composed all 10 original songs, displays her gift for layering memorable melodies with intricate, challenging arrangements. On tunes that tap into classic rock as well as classical, Carlton also gets to show off her resonant, slightly quirky voice, which she employs with deft phrasing. Her only misstep? A revved-up cover of the 1966 Rolling Stones hit "Paint It Black" that is a nondescript shade of gray.

Bottom Line: Definitely somebody

Ramsey Lewis & Nancy Wilson (Narada Jazz/Virgin)

Some combos just work; Like PB & J or Lucy and Desi, pianist Ramsey Lewis and singer Nancy Wilson are great separately but perfect together. Lewis, 66, who over four decades has recorded with everyone from Grover Washington Jr. to Earth, Wind & Fire, defined "The In Crowd" in '65 when his trio put that song and phrase on the pop charts. In turn, the inimitable song stylings of Wilson, 65, have delivered pain, joy and sarcasm with surging emotion in her 43-year career. Now, on their second album together, Wilson's passion meets Lewis's lyricism, as his trio backs the vocalist on five songs (in addition to its six new instrumental tracks). Her take on Van Morrison's "Moon-dance" is as urgent as it is swinging, and the disc's highlight, "Peel Me a Grape," slinks along with sly humor as Wilson tells a beau, "Here's how to be an agreeable chap/ Love me and leave me in luxury's lap."

Bottom Line: Jazz's dynamic duo is dynamite

Tommy Shane Steiner (RCA)

Aerosmith meets Alabama in the power chords and foot-stompin' songs of Austin, Texas-reared Steiner, the scion of a genuine rodeo family. On his debut Steiner, 28, shows a flair for delivering southwestern country rock and contemporary story songs about everything from a Starbucks romantic encounter to an elderly stroke victim's plight.

The singer lets loose with more traditional country on the Tim McGraw-sounding "Havin' a Good Time" and brings in Randy Travis and Vince Gill for guest appearances. Still, this young buckaroo may rope as many fans in Cleveland as he does in Nashville.

Bottom Line: Longhorn with range

Avant (Magic Johnson/MCA)

Working for Earvin "Magic" Johnson's label and having the former L.A. Laker great serve as an executive producer for this effort, Avant must have pictured an easy layup off the glass. Yet although Ecstasy scored Top 10 debuts on both Billboard's pop and R&B charts, Avant shoots mostly bricks on his lackluster sophomore album. This is contemporary soul at its most formulaic, with the usual gauzy, amorous slow jams such as the single "Makin' Good Love" and lite hip-hop tracks featuring the obligatory rapper cameos (here, Cap-1 and Sean Don).

The predictable production and material (all of which Avant cowrote) wouldn't be quite so bad if his singing were stronger. His thin tenor, though, does little to distinguish him from every other R. Kelly wannabe. Only when guest vocalist Charlie Wilson (of Gap Band fame) pipes in on the ballad "One Way Street" are there moments when listeners will be content, much less ecstatic.

Bottom Line: This R&B is Routine and Boring

  • Contributors:
  • Kyle Smith,
  • Chuck Arnold,
  • V.R. Peterson,
  • Ralph Novak.