Beth Orton (Heavenly/Astralwerks)

Album of the week

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Beth Orton is adrift in a time warp: Her programmed beats and elliptical lyrics are as current as tomorrow's newspaper. Like all hipsters these days, she's also stuck in the '70s—though in her case it's the 1870s.

Or at least its instruments. Summoning muted orchestrations of violins, cellos and brass, the English singer-songwriter is moving further from her Joni-Mitchell-meets-the-Chemical-Brothers roots. The irreplaceable instrument is Orton's pretty, gritty voice, which brings to mind Sarah McLachlan if she lost her kitten and stayed up for a week.

At times this lush chamber pop wallows in gorgeous melancholy; it could use more of the throbbing urgency of Orton's 1999 track "Stolen Car." More often, though, as on the title tune, with its funky electrogroove and lively percussion, there is a darkly alluring glow. An acquired taste? Acquire away.

Bottom Line: Brainy music for a rainy day

Darius Rucker (Hidden Beach)

He never much liked being called Hootie, and now he doesn't sound like he ever swam in the same pond as the Blowfish. For his surprising solo debut, Rucker largely forgoes the jamming blues-rock of his longtime band (which he still fronts) in favor of neo-soulful pop tinged with jazz, folk, gospel and classic R & B. (Perhaps that's why Atlantic Records, which last year was supposed to release this disc, decided to pass instead.)

The new Rucker even calls on Jill Scott's production posse, A Touch of Jazz, for five tracks, including a sexy-cool duet with Scott herself. Other R & B collaborators include Ryan Toby from City High, Jimmy Cozier and Musiq, who sings backup on the shimmering, Seal-esque "Exodus." However, Rucker could have done without bringing in gangsta rapper Snoop Dogg for his unconvincing (and unnecessary) hip-hop turn, "Sleeping in My Bed." Despite this and a few other missteps—including an uninspired contemporary Christian number preceded by an a cappella bit of "Amazing Grace"—give Rucker credit for at least temporarily moving beyond that Hootie sound.

Bottom Line: A respectable soul-o effort

The Charlie Daniels Band (Blue Hat)

On his band's latest album, which he dedicates to those "who wear the uniform of the United States of America," Daniels is as much a flag-waver as a fiddler. He even closes this disc with an admirably understated instrumental rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner," featuring just his violin and Bruce Brown's acoustic guitar. The Nashville vet also sings the nation's praises on the Sept. 11-themed "The Last Fallen Hero": "Lead on red, white and blue/ And we will follow you until we win the final victory." Still, Daniels is at his best when he and his band forget the politics and just jam on frivolously fun tracks such as the energetic neo-Western swing tune "Rock This Joint," which should do just that.

Bottom Line: Patriotic country

Lamya (J)

Last year it was Alicia Keys; this year record-company impresario Clive Davis has had the publicity machine working overtime for Lamya: Spin magazine declared her one of six new artists to watch five months before her debut. So does this pop diva-in-training live up to the hype? Yes and no. Lamya, 28, who cowrote all but one tune, is a talent, possessing an ethereal, classically trained voice that soars effortlessly over music ranging from light, chilled-out hip hop to dramatic orchestral arrangements. The singer, who is of Omani descent, also embraces Middle Eastern influences on sumptuous songs such as "Splitting Atoms," which is laden with sitar and tablas. Though all of this sounds impressive, it lacks real passion, as Lamya holds the listener at a cool distance. (Her oblique lyrics and stylized delivery don't help.) She could learn from Keys's emotive example.

Bottom Line: Room for improvement

Marie Sisters (Republic/Universal)

Misery never sounded so good as it does on the Maries' debut single, "Real Bad Mood," a lively, sensual tune written by singer Leslie Satcher that is destined to be a standard. Happily, it is far from the only strong track on this first album by country-singing siblings Chaz and Kessie Marie.

The pair, who hail from the Dallas area, also benefit from material by Richard Marx, who cowrote two songs, and Brian McKnight, whose romantic "Still" is more affecting here than on McKnight's overwrought original. This is one sister act that you shouldn't miss.

Bottom Line: Mighty Maries

  • Contributors:
  • Kyle Smith,
  • Chuck Arnold,
  • Ralph Novak.