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Now Hear This

Beck, Sondre Lerche, Peter Wolf, Ani DiFranco

Breaking up with a longtime love can do that to a guy. In fact, he seems to have changed a great many things. Gone is the cut-and-paste pastiche that made previous albums "Odelay" and "Midnite Vultures" such head-spinning crazy quilts.

This time, he harkens back to 1998's "Mutations," with stripped, acoustic folk and sleepy-time vocals, and to his collaborations with Air, with a retro-futurism vibe. Overall, it's pretty bleak and unadorned. But, to Beck's credit, it's never boring.

He pokes his head into every corner of his misery, observing "there's no road back to you" and that he's "tired of fighting for a lost cause." His heart is pretty far out on his sleeve, and there are no samples or irony to hide behind.

Beck seems to have learned the difference between saying he's "a loser, baby" and really meaning it. — David M Putney

Sondre Lerche "Faces Down" (Astralwerks) ****

For those looking for a sequel to Beck's "Mutations," but with a lighter heart than on his brooding new disc, the debut by 19-year-old Norwegian Sondre Lerche may be your thing. His sonic palette is nearly identical to that album's, putting a thin electronic sheen on folk music, American and Brazilian pop and muted psychedelia.

The surface is sweet and light, but Lerche's well-crafted songs have shadows, too. One line explains, "Virtue and wine cannot help you swim/ Pain and sorrow must come" — but the song's beautiful melodic outro could keep you afloat all on its own. The spare "Side Two" is a lament for "the tortured young and old," but the next track, the duet "Modern Nature," wipes out the clouds with a burst of Cole Porter sunniness. "Oh, what a world this life would be ... forget modern nature, this is how it's meant to be," Lerche sings in harmony. The song sounds like the movie "Amelie" looks — like butterflies-in-the-stomach, stars-in-the-eyes new love.

Up until the final track, a "U.S.-only bonus" that sounds like a leftover, "Faces Down" is nearly pitch-perfect. Along with his countrymen and label-mates Royksopp, an inventive down-tempo electronic group, Lerche is making a name for the chilly north.

— Dave Renard

Peter Wolf "Sleepless" (Artemis) ****/ Delbert McClinton "Room to Breathe" (New West)****

Here are two recent releases by artists who, as the cloth-worn cliché states, simply get better with age. And these two splendid roots-based recordings overlap well, too. Delbert McClinton's collection of original Texas roadhouse blues would enliven any Saturday night fish fry, while Peter Wolf's low-key set of mainly acoustic workouts would be perfect for the late-night after-party.

Both have experienced their share of fame — one years ago and the other now.

Wolf did in the late '60s and '70s as lead singer for the raucous J. Geils Band. McClinton's now getting his due after decades in the trenches, thanks to last year's deserved Grammy-winning "Nothing Personal."

Wolf, who used to be a swaggering, limber-limbed, jive-talking front man with J. Geils, has now developed into a solid singer, applying his slightly gruff, world-weary vocals on "Sleepless" to a set of mainly original tunes. Although sounding like a recording made by road-tested veterans in a bar at 3 a.m., the disc never sounds soporific or bland. Hardly.

With help from Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Steve Earle and Geils' harpist extraordinaire, Magic Dick, Wolf offers tunes that sound like lost "Let It Bleed" country-rock songs along with greasy Stax soul and gentle ballads that avoid smarminess and cheap sentiment. Highlights include an acoustic retake of the Otis Rush/J. Geils classic "Homework," delivered with understated yet ominous-sounding vocals, and "Too Close Together," featuring Richards and Dick with Wolf showing he can still jive live.

McClinton's "Room to Breathe" simply updates "Nothing Personal."

Rather than using a group of special guests, this time the 61-year-old Texas singer uses his road band to great effect. Everything on this session sounds tight and grooving, with nothing wasted or over the top. With that patented raspy blues/country voice, McClinton lives every motel-room skirmish, every tear-in-the-beer, every late-night carouse and every honky-tonkin' throwdown.

The sound is a roots blend of blues, R&B, soul and country. And McClinton's songs are full of slices of life, rendered with humor, pathos and clever wordplay. The country crooning of "Lone Star Blues" twangs with an all-star chorus that includes the Flatlanders, Rodney Crowell, Billy Joe Shaver and Emmylou Harris.

The man may be in his 60s but he never sounded so jumpin'. Not only does he have room to breathe, he's got room to move.

— Eric Feber

Ani DiFranco "So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter" (Righteous Babe) ***

The only constant about Ani DiFranco is her change. But after listening to her newest album, one wonders if appreciating this artist's capacity for evolution means that you have to like the most recent way in which she's evolved.

Her press people are hailing this double live disc recorded on her recent tours as a "full force funk 'n' folk free for all." Funk is indeed the word.

DiFranco's got her own horn section these days. The sound at times makes your body want to dance in 10 joyful directions at once, and, at times, makes you check to be sure that you're not listening to a cassette that's been left in the sun too long.

This album doesn't have the same fire as her other live offering, 1997's "Living in Clip," but it does prove that her songs are living and breathing, and she continues to take them out of their cages and handle them with a transformative touch.

"Cradle and All," "Dilate" and "Not a Pretty Girl," have a billowing sense of newness and a tough, quiet wisdom. Two new songs, "Shrug" and "Welcome To," have the frayed feel of 1999's "Up, Up, Up." The real standout is "Self-Evident," a nine-minute poem Ani wrote in response to Sept. 11, also previously unreleased. Beware: It mixes moments of luminous lyric with incendiary politics — classic DiFranco.

— Jennifer Anderson

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