Noteworthy reviews of recent CDs

COUNTRY

Dolly Parton - Halos & Horns (Sugar Hill Records): Dolly Parton's recording career has spanned four decades, producing plenty of pop hits. But over the past four years, she has unplugged herself from today's slick country music, preferring to focus on songs fit for the front porches of backwoods Tennessee. So if you enjoy bluegrass instruments and Ms. Parton's soprano vocals, "Halos & Horns" is a good buy. Some songs are simple, teary-eyed laments of relationships turned bad, but many others take a more spiritual look at life. Sweeping gospel background vocals set a wonderful tone behind the songs "Hello God," "Raven Dove," and "Stairway to Heaven." Yes, the latter is that Led Zeppelin classic, and believe it or not, Ms. Parton's acoustic approach does it justice. By Vic Roberts

POP/ROCK

David Bowie - Heathen (Columbia): Let's move the bottom line to the top: This is Bowie's best record in two decades. Here, a confluence of one strong melody after another gives wing to one of rock's great voices. It's hard not to swoon as he lets his sonorous voice soar and hold onto the vowels of every word, elongating them, reluctant to let them go ("slooooow buuuurn"). For once, the lyrics, which range from theological questioning to a voyage into space (shades of Bowie's 1969 hit "Space Oddity"), are straightforward rather than self-consciously arch. If the artist's trademark experimentation is also missing, there's still sufficient bristle around the edges to distinguish it from the mellifluous piffle of the singer's '80s material. By Stephen Humphries

Doves - The Last Broadcast (Capitol): One of the most thrilling bands to emerge this century, Doves wrap their unforgettable tunes in so many layers of sound textures that you'll spend many nights in a darkened room with headphones trying to unravel them all. This follow-up to 2000's word-of-mouth success, "Lost Souls," brims with an infectious joie de vivre. On "There Goes the Fear," for instance, chiming guitars and exultant harmonies chronicle a woman's discovery of love following an abusive relationship; on the anthemic "Caught by the River" a father offers a hand to an estranged son teetering on life's edge ("you and I were so full of love and hope/ would you give it all up now?"). Here's hoping the album title isn't prophetic. - S.H.

Dave Matthews Band - Busted Stuff (RCA): This album is take 2. Most of these songs were originally recorded for a CD intended to be produced more than a year ago, but Matthews was unhappy with the results and scrapped them. But even as he moved on to write new material for last year's pure pop record, "Everyday," someone released those abandoned demos to the Internet. "Busted Stuff" revisits those songs in an attempt to get them right. This time, the compositions benefit from passionate, committed performances - something lacking on the sluggish originals. There are also some fine singalong moments ("Where Are You Going," "You Never Know"). Unfortunately, the band falls back on an all-too-familiar, unchanged musical patterns rather than breaking any new ground. - S.H.

Avril Lavigne - Let Go (Arista): Teen newcomer Avril Lavigne sounds more mature than 17 years old. With her hit "Complicated" (No. 3 on the Billboard charts), she begins singing "Life's like this. That's the way it is." Her voice is strong and confident as she sings over powerful guitar riffs. The skater punk-influenced Lavigne has been compared to fellow Canadian Alanis Morissette, but Avril's songs are more hard rock. Avril writes lyrics that young listeners can relate to: feeling lonely, the complications of life, and boy-girl relationships. Usually when a singer has a hit, there are only a couple of other good songs on the album. But with "Let Go," I enjoyed listening to every single track, from the upbeat "Sk8er Boi" to the ballad "I'm With You." Expect to hear more hits from Lavigne in the coming months. By Lisa Leigh Parney

HIP-HOP

Wyclef Jean - Masquerade (Columbia): Wyclef Jean's third solo album, dedicated to his late father, is more personal than his other two recordings. This Haitian-born artist brings Caribbean/reggae flavor to his rap/hip-hop music. Fast tracks like "Peace God," "Masquerade" (featuring the hip-hop group M.O.P.), and "Party Like I Party" keep your head bobbing while slower ones like "Two Wrongs" (featuring Claudette Ortiz of City High) and "Thug Like Me" keep you emotionally connected. With lyrics that one can relate to and beats that make you want to get up and dance, Wyclef gives listeners a few hits that will appeal to a diverse group of people. By Lilian Akwisombe

JAZZ

E.S.T. - Strange Place for Snow (Columbia): A sensation in Europe and catching fire in the US, Sweden's Esbjörn Svensson Trio plays achingly beautiful compositions that draw inspiration from sources ranging from lyrical jazz pianist Bill Evans and the cutting-edge coolness of Radiohead to the simple serenity of Scandinavian folk songs. Led by Svensson's less-is-more piano, it's a mix that sounds at once jazzy, bluesy, classical, and very contemporary. Most successful when the tempos are languid (like the elegant title tune), this eclectic music weaves an irresistible spell. Over their five albums, E.S.T. has demonstrated the musical chops, songwriting talent, and conceptual vision to be around for a long time. By John Kehe

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