Picks and Pans Main: Song

UPDATED 08/18/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/18/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

Red Dirt Road
Brooks & Dunn (Arista)

Brooks & Dunn maintain a high level of entertainment by sticking with what brought them to the party: vigorous country music with a natural blues-rock edge. Although they lack artistic nuance, tunes such as the clever "You Can't Take the Honky Tonk out of the Girl" and the frisky two-step title track are ingratiating and lively. "Red Dirt Road," the only song that Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn wrote exclusively together, reflects the down-home attitude that has helped them sell 25 million albums and score 23 No. 1 hits: "It's where I drank my first beer/It's where I found Jesus/Where I wrecked my first car/I tore it all to pieces."

Although they take turns on lead vocals, with Dunn's reedy but pleasant tenor handling the major share, the two never seem to be trying to show each other up. Backing the duo are straightforward arrangements that highlight Shannon Forrest's deft drumming, Steve Nathan's swingy organ fills, Jim Horn's subtle horn section and the fluid steel guitars of Paul Franklin and Dan Dugmore. The result is an album that rarely surprises but consistently delivers the goods that fans have come to expect since Brooks & Dunn's 1991 debut.

BOTTOM LINE: Take this Road

Resurrected
The Tony Rich Project (Compendia)
Critic's Choice

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After his Grammy-winning debut, 1996's Words, Rich's career flatlined with his second CD, 1998's Birdseye. But on his third disc he undergoes an artistic resurrection that will have you thinking he is the second coming of Prince. Rich, best known for the spare acoustic soul of his hit "Nobody Knows," cranks up the electric guitar on funk-rockers, such as the psychedelically tinged "Future Daze," that recall Purple Rain-era Prince, while "The Only Way 2 Love Me," with its melodic guitar-pop crunch, evokes the 1987 Prince gem "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man." Like the Purple One, though, Rich isn't content to limit himself to just one style here. He veers from breezy R&B ditties to atmospheric slow jams to gentle pop ballads. Likewise, his lyrics range from romantic to social-minded to spiritual. On "Within My Soul," Rich sings, "I've been born again." Indeed he has.

BOTTOM LINE: A Rich comeback

Jackpot
Chingy (Disturbing Tha Peace/Capitol)

Chingy's rap hit "Right Thurr" is the best Nelly song that Nelly never recorded: It's an infectious party anthem, complete with a rubbery bass line, good-naturedly lascivious lyrics ("I like the way you do that right there/ Lick your lips when you're talking/ That make me stare") and Chingy's singsong, southern-inflected delivery. Like Nelly—a fellow St. Louis native for whom he opened on tour last year—Chingy is concerned mostly with having fun and being a player on his winning if derivative debut. Although the rest of the CD doesn't quite hit the Jackpot like "Right Thurr," it delivers plenty of bouncing beats and good-time rhymes. Guest rapper Ludacris, who signed Chingy (real name: Howard Bailey) to his Disturbing Tha Peace Records and executive-produced this album, checks in on "Holidae In," a funky free-for-all that also features Snoop Dogg.

BOTTOM LINE: A good payoff

New York City
The Peter Malick Group featuring Norah Jones (Koch)

In 2000, Norah Jones, then 21 and unsigned, lent her vocals to Peter Malick's blues group for what was to be a full album. Before the CD could be completed, though, Jones landed a deal with Blue Note and went solo to record her multiplatinum debut, Come Away with Me. This enticing EP features six songs from those recording sessions and shows the Grammy darling in a decidedly bluesier light. On the sexy, slow-grinding "All Your Love," a cover of the Magic Sam standard, she displays a raspy growl that brings to mind a young Bonnie Raitt. Unlike on Come Away with Me, Jones doesn't play much piano here, which puts the focus of these intimate musical arrangements on Malick's adroit guitar work. A veteran who has played with Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Big Mama Thornton, Malick also composed all four original tunes, including the easy-shuffling title track, which poignantly describes New York City as "such a beautiful disease."

BOTTOM LINE: Short but sweet

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