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Thursday, August 26, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Romance, Regret: New Cds Explore The Ways Of Love

Seattle Times Staff Critic

Me'Shell Ndegeocello established herself as one of the most promising artists to emerge in the 1990s via stark, bracing songs like "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)" and hard-edged instrumentals that showed her brilliance on bass.

So her third album, "Bitter" (Maverick), comes as a surprise. It's a smoky, simmering collection of atmospheric songs that have to do with peace, love and desire. The restlessness, frustration and anger that boiled beneath the surface of her previous work is nowhere to be found. Instead, she expresses regret, begs for forgiveness, seeks tranquility and desires love and sexual passion.

It's a startling transition that adds a new dimension to her artistry. She shows a whole new side that's strikingly different, but satisfying in its own way. The soft Ndegeocello turns out to be as fascinating as the tough one.

The change is apparent from the opening cut, an instrumental called "Adam" that's lush and somber, carried by sweet violins. It segues into the first song, "Fool of Me," in which she asks why a lover betrayed her. But she does so without rancor, because she is still in love with the betrayer - so in love, she sings, that she can "smell you in my dreams."

In the similar "Faithful" she is so in love with the object of her desire that she asks forgiveness, and calls herself "weak" for objecting to her lover's unfaithfulness. "No one is faithful," she determines, singing in a sweet, pleasant way.

Some of the tunes have a smoldering sexuality similar to early Prince songs, although they're not as explicit. "Satisfy" is a poetic celebration of sensual pleasure; "Sincerity" has to do with the joys of affection and foreplay; "Beautiful" is an extremely romantic appreciation of the human body.

The one cover song in the 12-cut, 48-minute album is Jimi Hendrix's "May This Be Love," which Ndegeocello interprets as a druggy, psychedelic trip, ending with a long, instrumental reverie.

"I never thought I'd fall in love," she sings in the last song, "Grace." Obviously, she has. It also seems as if she's become influenced by Eastern philosophy, perhaps Buddhism.

Ndegeocello shows her talent as a bassist, as she did on her previous two releases, although with lighter themes this time. And she's well served by the many guest artists, including Wendy & Lisa (Prince alums) on guitars and keyboards, respectively, and rock guitarist Doyle Bramhall II.

OTHER NEW RELEASES

`Forget About It' Alison Krauss (Rounder)

Krauss is one of the finest bluegrass pickers and singers, and she reaches new heights on this near-perfect album of eleven well-chosen songs. Her whispery, breathy voice has never been more enticing, and her playing, on various string instruments and on fiddle, is as impressive as always.

She's enlisted the help of some of her many talented admirers, including Jim Keltner on drums, Jerry Douglas on dobro, Sam Bush on mandolin and Dolly Parton and Lyle Lovett on harmony vocals.

Among the many highlights are "Empty Hearts," a dark, haunting, but touching song about loneliness, with a nice, understated arrangement; "Ghost in This House," a cautionary tale about becoming reclusive and depressed over a lost love; "It Don't Matter Now," the most pop-like tune on the disc, with an irresistible beat; "Could You Lie," a warm, delicate, waltz-like tune; and "Dreaming My Dreams With You," an uplifting song of hope that features Parton and Lovett.

`Ride With Bob' Asleep at the Wheel (DreamWorks)

Asleep at the Wheel has been playing the music of Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys for 30 years now, keeping alive the bright, fun-loving spirit of the legendary inventor of Western swing.

Asleep, led by the talented Ray Benson, has already done a tribute album to Wills (1993's "Tribute to Bob Wills") but this is a different matter, due to the wealth of guest stars who have climbed on board. This loving celebration of Texas swing consists of one gem after another, 17 fine songs with nary a clunker among them.

It's refreshing to hear Reba McEntire, who has one of the finest voices in all of popular music, doing a simple, old-timey song like "Right or Wrong" so beautifully. You can tell she loved doing it.

"New San Antonio Rose," the biggest hit Wills ever had, swings like crazy on this version, which features a great vocal from Dwight Yoakam. One of Wills' other well-known songs, "Take Me Back to Tulsa," jumps with merriment, thanks to the talents of the Asleep band, and a sturdy guest vocal from Clay Walker.

"Stay All Night," that country classic, includes great fiddle and mandolin, and a spirited vocal by Mark Chesnutt. "Roly Poly" is sprightly fun, thanks to the vocal contribution of the Dixie Chicks. Other contributors include Clint Black, Shawn Colvin, Vince Gill, Merle Haggard, Manhattan Transfer, Tim McGraw, Willie Nelson, Steve Wariner and Lee Ann Womack.

"Bob Wills Is Still the King," according to Waylon Jennings' tune, the one cut on the disc which was not played by Wills (who died in 1975). This great album shows why his music will never be forgotten.

`Live, Laugh, Love' Clay Walker (Giant)

Walker, one of young country's most romantic cowboys, has released another fine collection of heart-tugging ballads and honky-tonk rockers, highlighted by the Stones-y "Cold Hearted," the big, dramatic "Once in a Lifetime Love" and the romping title tune, which has a Tex-Mex intensity.

Sometimes Walker overdoes it - the understanding, sensitive cowboy hunk depicted in "Woman Thing" is too perfect to be believable. And "The Chain of Love" is a story song so sickly sweet and unlikely, it comes off like an episode of "Touched by an Angel."

But mostly Walker uses his romantic, sometimes almost tearful, voice to deliver believable, tender love ballads like "She's Always Right," "It Ain't Called Heartland (For Nothing)" and "If A Man Ain't Thinkin' ('Bout His Woman)."

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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