IN MY MIND
Not heard from since the lovely hit ''He Is" on her 2002 debut, Heather Headley reappears with a polished album of contemporary R&B that's ready for radio, candlelit dinners, or sister-to-sister commiserations over a bad breakup. This is impeccably produced, unapologetically mainstream music that speaks to, and of, a demographic that the music industry all too often neglects: educated, middle-class, adult black women who seek a good love, rewarding career, and comfortable life. The Trinidad-born, Indiana-raised Headley is just such a woman; plus she's gorgeous and sings like a dream. The album's best moments are, in a sense, its most formulaic ones. Ballads like ''In My Mind" or ''Losing You" trace love lost or found, starting quiet and swelling through a series of orchestral changes that Headley, who won a best actress Tony award for ''Aida," rides out to perfection. The two reggae-fied tracks with guests Vybez Kartel and Shaggy don't work: They fail to do justice to Headley's voice, and they disrupt the album's central narrative. No such trouble with ''Change," the album's finale. It's a pure gospel song that Headley, whose parents are ministers, hits out of the park and toward the Most High.
Slow Runner's debut, which neatly splits the difference between indie pop and Postal Service-esque electronica, is slow to gain momentum. The South Carolina-based quartet toils in mechanized harmonics for too long, and the sentiment behind the third track, ''Break Your Mama's Back," is buried by an off-key techno backbeat. But when ''No Disassemble" finally hits its stride on ''Everything Is Exactly What It Seems," the payoff is big: Slow Runner's sound is sinuous and insistent. ''She's not hiding wings beneath her leather jacket," chants frontman Michael Flynn. ''Everyone is exactly what they seem." Or not. The irony is cutting, and Slow Runner is eager to toy with listeners' sympathy. The encouraging part is that this is a band also eager to toy with convention, and the rest of the album is spent wandering between traditional verse-chorus structure and abstract beeps and blips. ''You're In Luck" explodes from the first verse: ''My arms are long and selfish," brags Flynn, ''I know the way to your heart," while the rest of the band drapes a shimmering soundscape around him. Slow Runner was recently featured on the soundtrack to the TV drama ''Grey's Anatomy," but the quartet has flown mostly under the radar. ''No Disassemble" suggests that the anonymity won't last.
DREAM BROTHER: THE SONGS OF TIM & JEFF BUCKLEY
Jeff Buckley met his father -- late-'60s, early-'70s singer Tim -- exactly once, and he spent his career avoiding, as much as possible, trading on his father's cult fame. But both strained against musical boundaries with astonishing and expressive voices, and neither lived past 30; Tim died of a heroin overdose, Jeff drowned in the Wolf River. Talent and tragic ends guaranteed their legacies would be inextricably linked. Rykodisc's ''Dream Brother" tribute disc continues to conflate the two, treating their albums as chapters in one catalog. Among those artists choosing a folkie approach, Adem uses an acoustic guitar to capture the hypnotic swirl of Jeff's full-band original of ''Mojo Pin," but Micah P. Hinson's Woody Guthrie approach to ''Yard of Blonde Girls" simplifies the song in the wrong way, turning it into a jolly foot-tapper. More interesting things happen with more drastically altered arrangements. The Earlies' ''I Must Have Been Blind" evokes Super Furry Animals in their slower, druggier moments, and Engineers turn ''Song to the Siren" into a mystical, gorgeous My Bloody Valentine-esque wash of noise. But ultimately, ''Dream Brother" would honor both men better by seeing them as individuals, rather than as a son who completed a story begun by his father.
New York City-based singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik was once known as the pretty boy behind the 1996 pop-rock hit ''Barely Breathing." He's since proven his longevity, gotten past his obsession with late British folkie Nick Drake, and gained a greater knack for complicating his songs with thoughtful lyrics and melodic flourishes. After drawing on his pop sensibility on 2002's ''Daylight" with the help of Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard and Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones, Sheik plays up his serious, forward-thinking side on his fifth release, ''White Limousine." On his most political album to date, Sheik skewers the materialism of American culture with a velvety croon on the album's title track. The effects-laden, Peter Gabriel-flavored rocker ''Shopping" playfully considers rock's consumer focus, while ''Star-Field on Red Lines" is a gorgeous lament against prejudice and war. In a novel move, Sheik also bundled the new release with a bonus CD called ''Yours," which features the album's raw music files. Listeners can remix their own versions of the album tracks on their computers. Sheik deepens his sound and focus, while singing as prettily as ever.
Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3
. . . TICK . . . TICK . . . TICK
Sometimes you can judge a book, or in this case an album, by its cover. If the title of ex-Dream Syndicate frontman Steve Wynn's latest reads like a time bomb, it's because the album sounds like one. The third in a trilogy of triumphs (beginning with 2001's terrific ''comeback" double-disc, ''Here Come the Miracles"), ''tick" is a lit fuse of a record that recalls Wynn's Dream Syndicate days of wine and roses yet doesn't coast on nostalgia. Instead, mordant meditations such as ''Freak Star," ''The Deep End," and the Television-esque guitar epic ''No Tomorrow" capture the unsettling tenor of these times. They also reaffirm the veteran rocker's stature as a trenchant songwriter with a troubled heart, acid tongue, and storyteller's eye. (Crime writer George Pelecanos, who's a fan of Wynn's work, wrote the lyrics for the stalker creep-out ''Cindy, It Was Always You"). As with vintage Lou Reed (dig the ''tick" cover homage to the first Velvet Underground LP), Wynn's vinegary sneer more than makes up for his narrow vocal range. The Miracle 3, a primordially essential combo made up of guitarist Jason Victor, drummer Linda Pitmon, and bassist Dave DeCastro, keeps the music ticking at a furious clip. Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3 perform at the Lizard Lounge on Thursday.