Kim Richey must be tired of being one of Nashville's best-kept secrets. She's written several chart-topping singles, including Radney Foster's "Nobody Wins" and Trisha Yearwood's "Believe Me Baby (I Lied)," but never charted herself. And she's released two critically acclaimed albums that didn't sell particularly well and didn't catch the ear of country radio programmers.

Part of the problem is that the Ohio-born Richey can't be conveniently pigeonholed in either the straight-ahead-country camp or the hipper alt-country community. Which may explain why there's little overt country music on her new album, "Glimmer," though it's on Mercury Nashville. And the album is produced by Englishman Hugh Padgham, best known for his work with XTC, the Police and Sting, whose regular guitarist, Dominic Miller, is one of a half-dozen studio guests crafting supple, graceful frames for Richey's sweet but emotionally soured vocals.

"Glimmer" is reminiscent of Rosanne Cash's brilliant 1990 album "Interiors," which painfully explored her dysfunctional marriage to Rodney Crowell. There's no specific relationship at the heart of Richey's album--she wrote or co-wrote all 14 songs--but the generally downcast numbers evoke the ache and vulnerability of recent failure, as well as lingering hopes and hard-won concessions.

For instance, "Come Around" is a bittersweet ballad in which the regret isn't strong enough to douse still-smoldering romantic ties, a problem also addressed in the string-supported "Hello Old Friend," in which Richey locks up the fire extinguisher when an old flame calls: "I like the way you sound/ straight out of lost and found."

Such convoluted relationships tend to defy easy resolution: "Lay It Down" advises moving on without rancor, otherwise "the truth leaks out a little every time/ you tell another desperate joke." "The Way It Never Was" offers a sobering take on a troubled partnership ("You've forgotten the things we didn't say"), while the quietly turbulent "If You Don't Mind" begs for a timeout from tensions in order to regain emotional connection.

In the sad, stately "Didn't I," Richey seems open to reconciliation after acknowledging mutual responsibility--"maybe time's the only way to find some way back from this"--but in the harsher "Long Way Back," she's less sure: "too much has passed for me to walk you through this/ From where I stand you're clean off the map/ knee-deep in no man's land."

The only glimmer of country on "Glimmer" comes in "Can't Lose Them All," an upbeat view of rebounding ("when somebody gets my drift/ all the stars are gonna line up/ and the tides are gonna shift"), and the uptempo empathy anthem "I Will Be the Strength in You."

Richey performs at the Birchmere tonight.

(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8172.)

Stephan Smith: 'Now's the Time' Stephan Smith, who opens for Richey, comes from a hallowed folk tradition--the topical broadside--that goes back to Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, and Woody Guthrie before them. On "Now's the Time" (Rounder), Smith sings out forcefully about last year's high school shootings in West Paducah ("West Kentucky"), the encroachment of a morally corrupt media ("The Media Mogul") and the brutal police attack on a Haitian emigre in New York ("Ballad of Abner Louima").

Smith, who plays guitar and banjo and sounds like a cross between the fervent young Dylan and Arlo Guthrie, favors wordy narratives built on traditional ballad forms, so his songs are modern-themed but ancient-sounding, as if they belonged on Folkways albums from the late '50s.

Fortunately, he's not obsessively political, as suggested by moony missives like "Hopelessly and Endlessly in Love" and such optimistic songs of community as "It's Just Gonna Take Everyone" and "All Together Now."

(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8173.)