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Natalie Merchant

The old-time twirl girl is back. And so is her unmistakable, ethereal voice and lush, sing-along melodies. On Ophelia, Natalie Merchant plays bandleader and matchmaker, changing the lineup of musicians from song to song, yet somehow maintaining the same trancelike atmosphere throughout the album. It's an exquisite, swaying sound, full of starts and stops.

More soulful than pop, Ophelia picks up where Tigerlily, Merchant's triple-platinum 1995 solo debut, left off. Whether you like the ex-10,000 Maniacs leader's breezy style or not, making it work on Ophelia, which she does to perfection, must not have been easy considering the diversity of Merchant's collaborators: former Brand New Heavies lead singer N'Dea Davenport, Tibetan devotional singer Yungchen Lhamo, Innocence Mission vocalist Karen Peris, guitarist Daniel Lanois, English composer Gavin Bryars, Zairean guitarist Lokua Kanza, composer Karl Berger, and jazz trumpeter Chris Botti.

Sound like an eclectic menagerie? In Merchant's hands, it all sounds smooth. Ophelia kicks off with the title track, a multilayered story about seven characters named Ophelia, each one speaking a different language. The song is reprised by an orchestra at the album's finish. "Life Is Sweet," with its nonintrusive strings, is an infectious piano song. With equally positive lyrical sentiment, the standout "Kind & Generous" eases into its "La la la, la la la la" melody before quickly building to a climax as Merchant sings powerfully: "I want to thank you for so many gifts you gave/With all the tenderness I want to thank you/I want to thank you for the generosity/The love and honesty that you gave me."

While the musical milieu of Ophelia remains constant, Merchant shifts lyrical themes from bright to dark. On "My Skin," a sparse ballad with haunting cello and pretty piano, she croons poetically: "Contempt loves the silence/It thrives in the dark/ With fine winding tendrils/That strangle the heart." "When They Ring the Golden Bells," a duet with Peris, is a surprising gem. Its country-guitar-strum rhythm adds a touch of Patsy Cline to a landscape that is otherwise all Merchant.

Ophelia's 12 tracks explore musical territory new to Merchant, although you'd never know it. She takes in the world and churns out her own sound, complete with diverse lyrics and dreamy musical landscapes. Ophelia is worth the three-year wait.

-- Jonathan Lesser

Swirl 360
Ask Anybody
(Mercury Records)

Here's the concept: a manufactured pop group for twentysomethings. Here's the process: Good-looking twin brothers sharing management with Hanson sign with the same label as the trio. Here's the execution: Having listened to Badfinger, Cheap Trick, and the Raspberries, they cowrite songs with a handpicked group of the best alternative-pop writers (members of Fountains of Wayne, the Posies, and Jellyfish) and record a sugary, shiny, summertime pop record.

Unfortunately, all of this ignores the fact that there is no formula for writing great songs. Swirl 360 is a fabrication that never approaches the depth of the classics its members hold so dear. Occasionally brothers Denny and Kenny Scott succeed in recreating the feel and hooks of classic pop, but not the soul. In an attempt to write instant classics while simultaneously attracting 15-year-old girls, Ask Anybody takes the middle road of safety, throwing in dance-type beats and synthesizers when the songs are begging for release from the burden of overproduction.

Whiny vocals and a monotonous drum machine are featured in "There," a token sappy ballad that seems to equate pop with: "Put as many sounds on the song as possible." "Summer of Love," with disco drums and a nonsensical "La la la" chorus, shows what can happen when pop songs go wrong -- they sound contrived and become annoying.

Other missteps occur when the brothers land too close to the ugly side of classic rock. "Heaven Is What You Make It" sounds like the Eagles at their self-important worst, and the album's last song, "Forget You Too," is for people who think "The Flame" is Cheap Trick's best song.

But when the songs work, they come close to achieving what was probably planned in the boardroom: the making of timeless, transcendental pop. Winners include "A Slick Round," in which harder-edged, old-school rock mixes with '80s synth-pop -- a perfect fit for, say, a John Hughes film soundtrack. "Hey Now Now" uses a Beatlesque bass line and a quick, cutting guitar lick for the verse before jumping to a frenzied, happy chorus. The juxtaposition is startling for a record so hellbent on smoothness, but it throws things off just enough to be refreshing.

The good stuff on Ask Anybody doesn't outweigh the bad, but there are a few guilty pleasures strewn throughout.

-- David Simutis


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