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Phantom Planet
The Guest

This album restores faith, however temporarily, that a major-label act can make a rock record built around strong melodies and solid musicianship without relying on gimmickry or excessive hyphenations (-core, alterna-). The Guest is simply a disc that showcases a dozen strong songs with sensitive production and deeply felt singing. The L.A. quintet's most famous member is its drummer, Jason Schwartzman, the geek from Rushmore and Slackers, who is also one of the primary songwriters.

If backed into a corner, you'd probably have to say that Phantom Planet rubs up most closely to power pop, although the band chips at that mold in a few ways. Not every chorus is shrouded in layered vocal harmonies (they often allow the winning tenor of frontman Alexander Greenwald to shine alone). Instead of spunky electric guitars completely dominating the arrangements, there's a warm mixture of acoustics and electrics, keyboards, and the occasional dollop of sax or strings. Credit for this beautifully organic production goes to the seasoned team of Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, who — despite being known for their sonic derring do with the likes of Los Lobos and Latin Playboys — basically build sympathetic, unobtrusive surroundings for these great songs. They set the standard straight away with the plaintive piano figure that opens the irrepressible California.

Phantom Planet further distinguish themselves by writing lyrics that are, by and large, sincere and thoughtful — the disc is refreshingly free of angst, irony or glibness. The Guest oozes a world-weary wisdom that suggests the band is mature beyond its years.

Perhaps most important, the album has legs. Earnest records of this sort have a way of vanishing into the ether after one or two listens. Not The Guest. It glues itself to the gray matter. (Epic)
—Eric Snider

Alanis Morissette
Under Rug Swept

The power obviously having gone to her head with 1998's impenetrable Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, Alanis Morissette appears to have come back to earth with Under Rug Swept. It would seem that the mercurial artist has remembered that her job as a pop musician is to connect with people. Which is not to suggest that Under Rug Swept is a tame, market-directed effort. Far from it. Morissette continues to mine her diatribe/missive style of songwriting on a few songs here, most notably Narcissus, which packs its verses with didactic admonishments to a self-centered man. These lapses into excess are balanced by songs that grippingly evoke love's obsessions and irrationalities. Best of the lot is the ballad Flinch, where a woman ruminates on a broken relationship 10 years hence. Her fixation is so entrenched that when Morissette sings Soon I'll grow up and I won't even flinch at your name, we suspect that the narrator is simply lying to herself. Besides its measured soul-baring, Under Rug Swept finds the artist returning to a more conventional, and agreeable, songcraft. Frankly, Morissette needed to prove that she could write hooks without Glen Ballard, her Jagged Little Pill svengali. As producer and sole writer on Swept, she displays her way with melody on such songs as 21 Things I Want in a Lover, So Unsexy, Precious Illusions and Surrendering — and she succeeds in a variety of feels, from charging rockers to ballads. On the vocal front, she has sublimated the Tourette's-style yelping and sneer in favor of more range and regular moments of tenderness. Morissette burst on the scene in her early 20s with a bold persona; she then stumbled a bit, scraped her knee and such. With Under Rug Swept, she emerges as a more mature artist, no longer the young woman who'd have you cowering on the other end of the phone. (Maverick)
—Eric Snider

Busta Rhymes
Genesis

Months ago, a friend commented that Busta was one of those MCs that should contemplate retiring from rap. I agreed at the time. After all, Busta has a successful movie career and clothing line, and while his last few albums were solid, Busta just didn't seem to have much left to say musically. Well that was before he took his Filpmode Records imprint and hooked up with Clive Davis' J Records. Clive doesn't mind spending on top-notch production, so there's hot new tracks here by Dre, Neptunes and Just Blaze among others. Busta rhymes with an urgency he hasn't had in years, rarely misfiring. Most of the songs are just club bangers to keep the party rockin'. But if his remake of the rap classic Shut 'Em Down can make a few li'l MTV-bred hip-hop heads interested in Pete Rock or Public Enemy, then Busta's newest will have contributed more to music than he knows. (Flipmode/J)
—Dan Fenwick

Natalie Merchant
Motherland

This disc delivers the magical aura that has become a trademark of this mystical, pop/folk songstress. Varying sounds includes sultry Arabic melodies (This House is on Fire), grainy R&B (Saint Judas) and a tinge of Spanish (The Worst Thing). The rich, often bluesy, music and heartfelt lyrics oscillate between lulling you into meditation and thoroughly awakening your spirit. Soft strings and delicately interwoven percussion surround Merchant's velvety alto serenade. This is the type of album you pop in at the end of the day, close your eyes and enjoy the journey. (Elektra)
—Nina Banez

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