The original American Idol has traded her sequined gowns for torn jeans. Mysteriously, and much to the surprise of certain skeptical critics, Kelly Clarkson's second CD -- which eschews the residual "Idol" dance-pop and big-money ballads that saturated last year's "Thankful" in favor of pop-rockers -- not only works but is a veritable gust of fresh air. That's not to say that "Breakaway" is particularly new or exciting-sounding. On the contrary. The album's title track and hit single accomplishes the rare feat of being thoroughly middle-of-the-road without sacrificing grace or intelligence, and with the exception of a couple of mid-tempo sinkers, that seems to be the model for the entire collection. Former Evanescence members Ben Moody and David Hodges helped write and produce, lending a big, buffed rock edge to the proceedings. Clarkson co-wrote "Addicted," one of the disc's standout tracks, with them, and the result sounds like a cross between Fiona Apple and Amy Lee. Because she's a strong, unforced singer and, more important, a persuasive interpreter, Clarkson toggles seamlessly between an attitudinal Avril-esque rocker like "Since U Been Gone," the itchy anthem "Walk Away" (co-written by Our Lady Peace frontman Raine Maida), and bittersweet "Beautiful Disaster," a stripped-down live version of which closes the album. Arriving amid a glut of pitch-shifted tabloid tarts and cross-marketed movie starlets passing for singers -- not to mention a stream of half-baked "Idol" projects -- Clarkson's disc is a reminder that it's been ages since anyone's had the nerve to put out a mainstream pop album from a mainstream youngster who's not pretending to be anything but.
Johwn Frusciante, Josh Klinghoffer
A SPHERE IN THE HEART OF SILENCE
Not content to show off his singer/songwriter chops with a single solo album, Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante has embarked on an epic, six-album song cycle, to be released over six months. The series shows that he's as comfortable with indie rock and electronic music as with the guitar-laced alternative rock one might expect from him. There's the classic rock-flavored "Will to Death" album and the diffuse, electro-based "Automatic Writing" EP, which Frusciante released as the band Ataxia. And there's the understated indie rock of the "DC" EP, produced by Fugazi's Ian MacKaye, and the alternative rock swagger of "Inside of Emptiness." Frusciante's fifth release, "A Sphere in the Heart of Silence," differs the most from the others in the series, offering experimental electro music that was largely written with multi-instrumentalist collaborator Josh Klinghoffer (PJ Harvey, Beck) for a 10-show performance series. The duo builds a dense soundscape of woven electronic melodies, as on album opener "Sphere," which finds the simple beat and mournful electric guitar kicking in only after minute four. "The Afterglow" is closer to traditional dance music, with a manic beat and sinuous, Middle Eastern-tinged vocals, while "Communique" and "My Life" are gentler, piano-dusted ballads. Athough less immediately accessible than the other releases in the series, this EP helps to reveal the depth and range that is possible when musicians with curiosity and courage allow their creative powers to run free.
DARK MATTER MOVING AT THE SPEED OF LIGHT
Tommy Boy Records
If you are a progenitor of a genre, as the Bronx-born DJ/godfather of hip-hop Afrika Bambaataa is, then the standards of your music are set high. Thus it is that Bambaataa's latest album disappoints. Bambaataa, who helped spread rap music to the masses with his trailblazing 1982 album "Planet Rock," has created an album that reminds one of Miles Davis's posthumous rap-infused album, "Doo-Bop." The difference is that with Davis's album the instrumentation was better than the mediocre rappers he teamed up with, whereas Bambaataa's beats are about as formulaic as the rap and pseudo-singing accompaniments that go with them. The song "Metal," for example, has a beat that sounds like a throwaway from Slim's 1998 release "You've Come A Long Way, Baby." Still, when a genius fails, even that which is left in his wake is reasonably sound. Standout tracks include "Take You Back," a funk groove with a bass line that grabs your head, and the title song -- an upbeat number that is jammin' enough for you to ignore its sometimes insipid lyrics. Regardless of the album's worth, diehard fans are likely to purchase it. Yet it is the diehards who are the first to shake their heads if their icons stray too far from the bounds they hold him to, or in this case, if he simply lets them down.
ALEX P. KELLOGG
You could almost hear the wheels turning in the heads of the executive producers of this 17-year-old R&B vocalist's sophomore effort. "Like Usher, with a twist." So they assembled some of hip-hop's best producers (yes, some who've toiled in the house of Usher), showcased Mario's sleek vocals, emphasized that he's clearly not a teen phenom anymore (sound familiar?), added some crunk juice, and stirred. The result is a pleasant, assured, but ultimately mostly generic mix of ballads and club bangers. There's no doubt that Mario has a terrific voice -- just listen to him caress the brilliantly produced Scott Storch grooves of "Let Me Love You" -- but right now it's devoid of personality. His vocals lack nuance and dimension, and there are times here when he's on the money technically but he can't find the heart of the song. That may come with time. And can we please put a stop to the "Yeah!" clones like "Boom," of course produced by crunkmaster Lil' Jon with one hand on a cash register? The best track is "Nikes Fresh Out the Box," which finds the singer groping toward his own style and leaving fingerprints. But too much of this is cookie-cutter stuff for it to be a turning point in the maturing Mario's career.
Combining the raw production values and lo-fi ethic of punk rock with a lighthearted aesthetic of '60s folk, New York's anti-folk movement provided an understated counterpoint to the neo-garage revival embodied by bands like the Strokes. The Moldy Peaches aligned themselves with the Strokes on a high-profile tour, and soon became the genre's most visible act, releasing a self-consciously aimless and wildly uneven record to the delight of over-educated, do-nothing hipsters everywhere. Since then, the Peaches' slacker icon Adam Green -- the precious raconteur that Beck was too serious to ever fully become -- has proved surprisingly prolific. On this, his third solo record, Green continues his aw-shucks shuffle through an absurdist urban bohemia of crummy mattresses, chubby princesses, late-night television encounters with George Bush, and phone calls from Johnny Depp, combining toilet humor with out-of-the-blue pop culture references to sometimes hilarious effect. On "Emily," smoking crack in the poor house stands in for drinking tequila on the beach. On "Over the Sunrise" Green channels a playful Jim Morrison. It's a rollicking roadhouse jamboree minus the Doors' sense of menace. But as delightful as the idea of Green's record sounds, the songs' whimsy is ultimately their undoing. At an average length of about two minutes, they often come off as one-note jokes or sketches that seem more like clever concepts than actual tunes. Green does have charm to spare, but 15 tracks into "Gemstones," one can't help question whether less might have been more.