AS THE BEST singer- songwriter to emerge from the women's music movement of the '70s and '80s, Vancouver's Ferron makes albums far too infrequently. "Phantom Center" is her first release in six years. It's not nearly as consistent as its marvelous predecessor, "Shadows on a Dime," but its best songs are among the year's best acoustic-guitar confessionals.

Too many of the new songs drift off into the vaporous vagueness of internal abstractions. When Ferron's lyrics snap into focus, though, they capture personal crises with apt aphorisms. "Sunken City" starts out with the conversational tone of "I'm holding your hand; I'm kind of scared myself" and evolves naturally into the poetic metaphors of "we're footprints and handprints and knees in the dew."

"Phantom Center" is more consistent musically. Ferron has mastered the Dylanesque tricks of using a choppy rhythm and long vocal lines that never quite resolve harmonically to keep the listener always hanging in suspense. The folk-rock arrangements turn on the interaction between Ferron's driving acoustic guitar chords and Tim Landers's sliding, jazz-like electric bass notes. The album's highlights are "White Wing Mercy," a re-recorded 1978 autobiographical song, and "Harmless Love," an appealing plea for romance without crisis.

FERRON -- "Phantom Center" (Chameleon). Appearing Sunday at the Birchmere.