Ben Jelen
POP

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When Ben Jelen's manager discovered the 24-year-old newcomer at a Jane's Addiction concert in 2002, he thought Jelen had the makings of a Calvin Klein poster boy. But after listening to the singer's demo tape, he realized that there was more to Jelen than pouty lips, chiseled cheekbones and really cool hair. Indeed, Jelen's impressive pop debut shows that his talent is much more than skin-deep. Not only does he possess a voice as pretty as his face, but he writes almost all his own material, in addition to playing piano, guitar and violin (!). TRL heartthrobs don't come with packages more complete than this. Jelen, who was born in Scotland but has lived in the States since he was 11, sings lush, dreamy songs about love, such as the string-laden single "Come On," about a long-distance relationship. "Thinking back before her, I never knew the meaning of alone," he sings. Full of romantic yearning, Jelen's introspective lyrics are dipped in melancholy. "I'm chasing the way we were, I wish that I could catch us," he confesses on "She'll Hear You," a folk-tinged number that is speckled with mandolin and banjo. Other songs, such as the acoustic-guitar-driven "Setting of the Sun," feature Celtic flourishes, while "Stay," one of two tracks produced by the Matrix (Avril Lavigne), boasts a bright pop-rock sheen. But Jelen is at his best just going it alone at the piano and singing with his angelic tenor on the hushed ballad "Slow Down," which reveals his true, unadorned beauty.

Gipsy Kings
FLAMENCO
CRITIC'S CHOICE

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The Gipsy Kings are still the best thing to come out of Arles, France, since Vincent Van Gogh. As if watched over by the spirits of the great European guitarists--Django Reinhardt, Carlos Montoya and Manitas de Plata--this group of eight cousins (including de Plata's second cousins, the five Reyes brothers) continues to create memorable music that evokes the intricate passions of the Spanish flamenco style. On this collection, which finds the Kings returning to their acoustic Roots, Nicolas and Canut Reyes alternate lead vocals, while Tonino Baliardo deftly handles most of the lead guitar duties.

There is one explicit nod to Reinhardt--his achingly beautiful tune "Nuages," on which Baliardo suggests some of the delicate artistry that made Reinhardt a jazz legend. Although the lyrics are sung in Spanish, you don't need to understand the words to appreciate this disc. Way beyond the strictures of language, these 16 songs will resonate with anyone who loves heartfelt, meticulously performed music.

[3½ STARS]

The Gipsy Kings are still the best thing to come out of Arles, France, since Vincent Van Gogh. As if watched over by the spirits of the great European guitarists—Django Reinhardt, Carlos Montoya and Manitas de Plata—this group of eight cousins (including de Plata's second cousins, the five Reyes brothers) continues to create memorable music that evokes the intricate passions of the Spanish flamenco style. On this collection, which finds the Kings returning to their acoustic Roots, Nicolas and Canut Reyes alternate lead vocals, while Tonino Baliardo deftly handles most of the lead guitar duties.

There is one explicit nod to Reinhardt—his achingly beautiful tune "Nuages," on which Baliardo suggests some of the delicate artistry that made Reinhardt a jazz legend. Although the lyrics are sung in Spanish, you don't need to understand the words to appreciate this disc. Way beyond the strictures of language, these 16 songs will resonate with anyone who loves heartfelt, meticulously per formed music.

POP

Various Artists
POP

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Oprah has already proven that her blessing sells books. Now the talk show queen is poised to do the same for CDs with this disc featuring the eight semifinalists from last February's Oprah's Pop Star Challenge, her American Idol-like singing competition. Unfortunately, as with the compilations featuring the American Idol finalists, this album has an amateurish quality that is perhaps appealing on television but doesn't cut it on a recording. The cheesy production and talent-show-level performances don't measure up to what we expect from today's pop stars. It doesn't help that some of these covers, such as "At Last," have been done to death. Not surprisingly, winner LaShell Griffin, who landed a contract with Epic Records and whose full-length debut is due May 25, gets the most play here with four solo numbers, including her Whitney-wannabe renditions of "Where Do Broken Hearts Go," "The Greatest Love of All" and "One Moment in Time."

Carl Thomas
R&B

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"I've got my favorite record on, compliments of Mr. Marvin Gaye," sings Thomas on the aptly titled "The Baby Maker." Like many of today's young R&B Romeos, Thomas clearly wants to be the next Marvin. While he doesn't quite get it on like Gaye, his sophomore CD showcases his smooth vocals and old-school stylings on a soulful set of makeout music. Thomas shines on midtempo numbers like the gospel-tinged "A Promise" and slow jams like the Bill Withers-esque "Rebound." Although he records for P. Diddy's Bad Boy label, he mostly steers clear of hip-hop, bringing in only rapper LL Cool J for the lady-loving single "She Is."

Allison Moorer
COUNTRY

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On her latest country album Allison Moorer might as well be singing the blues. Downbeat going on funereal, Moorer's fourth studio effort, the follow-up to 2002's Miss Fortune, finds her in a decidedly low mood. On the title tune—which, like all 11 songs here, Moorer cowrote-she sings, "I don't know how many rounds are left in me till I stay down." On "When Will You Ever Come Down," she sings, "Who is the monster in the mirror/ With the sorry eyes/ You've never seen it any clearer/ And you're terrified." At her worst, Moorer sinks to the whiny level of a teen-angst series, singing tautologically, "It's unpopular to be unpopular" on "Once Upon a Time She Said." Still, Moorer, younger sister of the equally talented and dyspeptic Shelby Lynne, is in strong, crystalline voice through out this CD. And she is supported by some first-rate backup musicians, especially guitarist Adam Landry. Even so, it's hard to get excited about music this depressing.

J-Kwon
RAP

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Following in the foot steps of Nelly and Chingy, J-Kwon is the latest rapper to emerge from the streets of St. Louis. On his fun if flawed debut, the 18-year-old emcee displays a penchant for the same good-time rhymes and party-rocking beats that have made Nelly and Chingy hip-hop stars. The hit first single, "Tipsy," is a club-banging ode to inebriation that he prefaces with a halfhearted disclaimer ("Teen drinking is very bad"). Later, on the raunchy "Underwear," with its vaguely Middle Eastern riff, he espouses the joys of marijuana and (safe) sex in his drawled delivery. Clearly, this teenager has run with the fast crowd in the hood.

MAROON 5 After its June 2002 release, Maroon 5's pop-rock debut, Songs About Jane, has finally hit the Top 10 thanks to the hit singles "Harder to Breathe" and "This Love." We asked the quintet's lead singer, Adam Levine, 25, to take five with us.

ON WHO IS THE JANE IN SONGS ABOUT Jane is my ex-girlfriend. We dated for about six months. It was really a beautiful experience. I have not heard from her since the album came out. Someday I'd like to sit down with her, have a cup of coffee and talk about how trippy and surreal [it is] that the album became as big as it did.

ON THE DATING PERKS OF BEING A ROCK STAR I'm a singer in a band. I get to date beautiful women [such as current girlfriend Kelly McGee, who appears in the 'This Love' video]. Isn't that part of it? You could be a nasty, unattractive, troll-looking dude and still hook hot girls if you're in a band.

ON THE BAND'S CELEB GROUPIES We're from L.A.; a lot of people who live in L.A. also happen to be celebrities. I haven't made out with Winona Ryder, but it seems like a rite of passage if you've been in a successful band.

ON HOW THEY CELEBRATED SONGS GOING PLATINUM We had seven or eight or nine bottles of champagne at our hotel in L.A. And I had a four-day headache afterward, but it was worth every sip. There are certain clichés of being in a band that are absolutely necessary.

  • Contributors:
  • Chuck Arnold,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Courtney Rubin.