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Represented here are eight groups, some of which have been around for more than half a century, all of which function something like hip-hop crews, expanding and contracting in pursuit of the perfect beat. There's the impassioned vocalizing and pulsing rhythms of Qurban Fakir and Ensemble, who perform every night at the shrine of Shah Abdul Latif, a venerated poet and master musician. Their style is similar enough to gospel's call and response that American churchgoers would recognize it, and the way the chorus sometimes slides into wordless ecstasy parallels the slur of a snarling punk rocker.

On Bahauddin Outbudden Qawwal and Party's "Naat" -- a graceful air driven by harmonium and handclaps -- outpourings of devotion to the prophet Muhammad nestle comfortably with tales of failed romances. Even more compelling is "Dhol," by Pappu and Joora Sain. This percussion duo creates a whirling dervish of a trance by trading off the roles of steady rhythm-keeper and improviser. These guys redefine the meaning of the term "jam band." They'd drive the audiences flocking to the H.O.R.D.E. tour wild.

-- Lee Ballinger

Sand and Water
Beth Nielsen Chapman
(Reprise)

Singer/songwriter Chapman assembles an impressive supporting cast on her third Reprise disc, including producer Rodney Crowell, guitarist Bonnie Raitt, vocalist Michael McDonald, and songwriter Joe Henry. The outing is also a pivotal one for Chapman: Her husband died last year, and most of the songs on Sand and Water center on this loss and her attempt to rebuild her life. It would be pleasing, therefore, to report the venture a success.

Unfortunately, that's not the case.
The album might better be named Syrup and Sludge. These songs are, for lack of a more appropriate term, thick. Plodding vocals, torpid pacing, and goopy, maudlin lyrics mar nearly every track. Warning: After playing this one, your stereo speakers might never come unclogged.

A departure from earlier albums, which veered toward soft country, Sand and Water has a new-age feel: lots of echoing vocals and pseudo-Eastern mysticism. The opening track, "The Color of Roses," is about as sentimental as the title suggests. A George Winstonish piano sequence introduces Chapman's breathy vocal line, one that calls to mind Sarah McLachlan on her worst -- her very worst -- day. The cut would be tolerable if it had a discernable melody. But it doesn't.

Indeed, for a set featuring such lush arrangements and smooth instrumentation, the songs themselves lack any real melodic structure. At times Chapman seems to find her notes just lying around on the floor, or maybe dangling from a cloud. She puts them together any old way.

Her lyrics are equally woeful. ("Oh, watch me go/I'm the happy girl, everybody knows/That the sweetest thing that you've ever seen/In the whole wide world/Is a happy girl.") I don't know about you, but when I hear something with this kind of bruising insight into the human condition, I think to myself: Who really needs Greek philosophy?

-- Keith Morris

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