Reviews of noteworthy recent CDs

POP

Elton John

Songs from the West Coast (Universal): Defined by crisp and clear production of often bare-bones vocals and instrumentation, Elton John's latest is a warm and engaging effort with a comfortable retro-feel. Standout tracks include the John Lennon-esque single "I Want Love," and a hauntingly epic "Ballad of the Boy in the Red Shoes." John's recent work has been sparked by returns to his '70s roots, particularly "Made in England" (1995), but "Songs from the West Coast" shines more brightly, thanks to a consistent tone and a heartfelt performance. By Bill Wright

Shakira

Laundry Service (Epic): The flaxen-haired Colombian pop star is moving and shaking everywhere these days - Pepsi commercials, MTV, Top 40 radio stations. Her first English-speaking album, "Laundry Service," featuring five Spanish songs, Brazilian drums, and Middle Eastern rhythms, debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard charts. "Laundry Service" has some catchy pop Latin hooks, such as the single, "Whenever, Wherever," but her songs are mostly stuck in the spin cycle of '70s disco music. Despite this, the former child prodigy must be doing something right: "Laundry" has sold nearly 3 million copies worldwide. By Lisa Leigh Parney

ROCK

Starsailor

Love Is Here (Capitol): Even before they'd finished recording their first album, Starsailor was quickly anointed by Britain's music press as the island's best band on the strength of a few singles. Perhaps a demotion is in order. True, the languid grooves of "Fever" and "Good Souls" are deserving of the band's recent slot on David Letterman. But Starsailor's mild-mannered stomps, though driven by pretty acoustic strumming, too often follow the path of least resistance. Lyrically and melodically, you know where each song is going next, and barely a syllable goes by without singer James Walsh sounding overwrought in his angsty earnestness. This will endear Starsailor to some, but make it wearisome listening for others. By Stephen Humphries

Elbow

Asleep in the Back (V2): British band Elbow frequently delves into minimalistic musical textures - drizzle-light drumming here, plucked acoustic chords there - to accompany the Peter-Gabriel-like vocals of Guy Garvey. Taken together, the band's exploration of the space between notes and their understanding of light-and-shade dynamics add up to an intimate grandeur. The romantic longing of "Red" and "Powder Blue" makes this ideal listening for the after hours of the night. By Stephen Humphries

Pink Floyd

Echoes, The Best of (Capitol): "Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way," Pink Floyd sings on "Time" (1973). The line sums up the sentiment that underlies the band's lava-lamp music: In their prime, Pink Floyd's lyrics reflected Britain's changing identity - from the post-war 1950s through the economic strife of the '70s. Unfortunately, this compilation isn't in chronological order to highlight that evolution. In terms of listening flow, the band's playful psychedelic pop of the '60s ("See Emily Play") sits uneasily next to dour tracks of the band's stadium-rock era ("Another Brick in the Wall") when David Gilmour's superlative guitar-playing rightly conquered the world. By Stephen Humphries

Mick Jagger

Goddess In the Doorway (Virgin): Kudos to Mick for not sitting around, idly waiting for the next Rolling Stones tour. Jagger has evidently put considerable effort into his latest solo album - writing, producing, and playing guitar on it. And the results of this upbeat compilation are frequently hummable, especially the wistful "God Gave Me Everything," the jubilant "Joy" (featuring U2's Bono on vocals), and the surging title track, which is driven by a dance-music backbeat. The album's weakness is that its pop-oriented production sounds so of-the-moment that one imagines buyers trading this in at second-hand CD stores before too long. By Stephen Humphries

COUNTRY

Martina McBride

Greatest Hits (BMG): The cover of her greatest-hits compilation shows the country crooner wearing an American flag on her shirt. Inside is a blue-and-white star-spangled CD, which includes such smashes as "Wild Angels," "Broken Wing," and "I Love You." Perhaps most notable is "Independence Day," McBride's self-proclaimed "career song." The 1993 tune actually deals with domestic violence, but its patriotic feel is uplifting in the aftermath of Sept. 11. The collection also features the rabble-rousing "When God-Fearin' Women Get the Blues," already making noise on the country charts. Throughout, McBride's voice is as stunning and strong as any other female country artist at work today. By Vic Roberts

Trace Adkins

Chrome (Capitol): Most songs here shine, though there are a few dull spots in this attempt at expanding the borders of country music. "I'm Tryin' " is unquestionably the strongest cut. The keyboard and violin riffs are reminiscent of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album. For those who think country music needs to merge with rap, look no further than the title track, "Chrome," which meshes rock guitar licks with a techno-pop beat. In "I'm Goin' Back," Adkins laments in 3/4 time for a simpler life. "I've got to get back to the farm where the cars aren't alarmed," he sings. Yes, car alarms can be annoying, but so is the jew's-harp that twangs constantly in the background. By Vic Roberts

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