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Kristin Hersh
Strange Angels
(Rykodisc)

Although not at all revolutionary, Throwing Muses created a distinct form of postmodern rock, full of propulsive bass lines, hypnotic guitars, and abrupt instrumental redirections. The band hit a high point with 1989's Hunkpapa, then the original lineup began to fall apart, most notably when Tanya Donelly departed to work with the Breeders and later to form Belly. The subsequent lineup shifts didn't much matter, though; Throwing Muses always came down to the songwriting and voice of Kristin Hersh. (They finally broke up last year.)

Hersh may have dominated her old band, but Strange Angels, her second mostly acoustic solo album, shows that her collaborators played significant roles. Hersh's writing hasn't been drained of any of its strengths; she manages to be both angular and melodious, and her lyrics reveal odd moments of contradiction, playfulness, and disassociation. But in this stripped-down setting -- even more spare than her solo debut, 1994's Hips and Makers -- there's not enough to compensate for the loss of the power of a full band.

Keeping a listener's attention without much more than an acoustic guitar is a big order, which is why a lot of unplugged concerts don't hold up once you get past the novelty of seeing the musicians sitting down. In contrast, somebody such as Ani DiFranco, who spent years and years touring with only a drummer behind her, has thoroughly learned how to fill the spaces in her songs by making her guitar do more than one thing at a time.

Hersh, though, mostly just picks or strums her smart songs, sometimes augmented by piano, cello, or atmospheric background vocal, but ultimately she doesn't provide a great deal of variety in sound and tempo. Still, these are awfully smart songs, delivered in her powerful, nasal, love-it-or-leave-it voice. Even with the recent commercial proliferation of female singer-songwriters, Hersh continues to hold her own ground -- a place she's kept since the formation of the Muses in 1984. She's not confessional, she's not bad-girl slutty, she's not (exceptionally) angry. She can capture a brief, sweet image ("A hot shower on a hot day/Water hangs in the air like you stayed," she sings on "Heaven") or offer an evocative, disturbing one (on "Stained" she sings that she's "stained under my nails and down my back"). The stories are like collages, flashing in bits and pieces, and they bounce across the melodies in unexpected ways.

The adventurous folk-rocker Joe Henry helped Hersh produce Strange Angels. Maybe next time around she'll invite a few others along for the ride.

-- Theresa Everline

Madonna
Ray of Light
(Maverick)

Madonna's new Ray of Light finds the Material Girl on the move. Musically she's delving further into electronica. Lyrically she's abandoned celebrations of self and sex for a more cosmic and spiritual perspective informed by her motherhood.

The dirty little secret about Ray of Light is that it's two different albums. One is a seven-song set Madonna co-wrote with Patrick Leonard (a major collaborator on 1986's True Blue, 1989's Like a Prayer, and the 1990 Dick Tracy soundtrack, whose contributions have petered out in recent years) and Rick Nowels (best-known for superintending Belinda Carlisle's solo career and co-writing Celine Dion's "Falling into You"). Madonna's voice is stronger here, thanks perhaps to her vocal training for her role in Evita, and it works to the benefit of these songs, which balance the Teutonic alienation of 1992's Erotica and the radiance of 1994's Bedtime Stories. "Little Star" is an ode to her daughter that nicely echoes "Lucky Star." "Sky Fits Heaven" reworks the melody of "Like a Prayer" and throws in a frisky drum break to good effect. Though the lyrics aspire to a simplicity that sometimes comes off as simple-mindedness, the collaborations with Leonard and Nowels are mature and textured, closer in spirit to Bjsrk's 1997 Homogenic than to the dance-pop with which Madonna has made her mark. "Frozen," the album's lead single, is the weakest song of the bunch, the one with the laziest melody and the least impressive use of electronics. And it's not bad at all.

But it's on the other half of Ray of Light, which comprises six songs co-written with remix godfather William Orbit (Peter Gabriel, the Cure), that Madonna really shines. Orbit, who remixed Madonna's "I'll Remember" in 1994, refuses to let electonics substitute for songcraft, and the tunes he helped create are sturdy structures that could be successfully realized as folk, rock, or pop. "Drowned World/Substitute for Love" not only has an irresistible melody, it also manages to move from patches of near-silence to clangorous pop in the span of minutes. The exuberant "Ray of Light" is almost as good. The Madonna/Orbit songs dip into psychedelia, stand firm against beats-per-minute backgrounds, and even try to get a piece of the rock -- "Swim" and "Candy Perfume Girl" open with nuanced guitar that wouldn't be out of place on the alternative charts. And then there's the album's stark closer, "Mer Girl," a nightmarish fantasy in which Madonna revisits one of her favorite themes -- her truncated relationship with her mother. As Madonna approaches 40, Ray of Light lives up to its name, and proves that there's plenty of life left in the old girl yet.

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