Mark Knopfler

Since putting Dire Straits on hiatus in 1995, leader Mark Knopfler hasn't seemed terribly interested in the kind of guitar heroics that made him a big star. Yet that's just what has made his solo career already so rich and interesting.

Knopfler's first two solo albums balanced his blazing but nuanced playing with far more humble, quietly hummable ditties -- music that grows on you, composed by someone who is all grown up. Knopfler reiterates his recent proclivity for subdued acoustic work on "The Ragpicker's Dream," his third solo disc, emphasizing the country and folk roots of his inimitable, fleet-fingered picking style, and further deemphasizing his penchant for razor-sharp riffs.

"Daddy's Gone to Knoxville" and "Quality Shoe" are modest shuffling country, the kind you'd find on an old jukebox, while "Fare Thee Well Northumberland" coasts along on a Celtic melody that could be centuries old. "You Don't Know You're Born" and "Coyote" do make some concessions to contemporary pop, but best of all may be "Why Aye Man," which manages to wrap Knopfler's love of British folk, Americana and modern-day music into one infectious little epic. If the album as a whole is ultimately a bit too sleepy for its own good, Knopfler is hardly sleepwalking, and it's never less than an absolute pleasure to listen to.

-- Joshua Klein

(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8154.)


Karl Denson's Tiny Universe

Through three albums fronting boogaloo cult heroes the Greyboy Allstars and on this, his second with the Tiny Universe, Karl Denson has proved that he can make even the most tepid tush twitch. Until now, the San Diego saxophonist's blend of funk, jazz and soul has been too long-winded for anyone but jam-band marathoners. But the mostly accessible "Bridge" is constructed with enough discipline to expand Denson's dance floor.

All but two of the 11 tracks feature vocals, a smooth evolution from his barrel-chested, instrumental past: "I got my groove on," Denson proclaims on "Groove On." Denson's singing range may be limited, but his delivery is cool and soulful. He rides a trippy, sitar-fueled melody on Curtis Mayfield's "Check Out Your Mind," and croons reverently on the wistful, R&B-flavored "Because of Her Beauty."

Denson has lots of friends (he played sax in Lenny Kravitz's band for four years and two albums), so guests drift in and out of the Tiny Universe dispensing musical wisdom like cosmic-groove Yodas. Brass kickers Fred Wesley and Roy Hargrove blow mortar into the wall of funk. Street poet Saul Williams and hip-hop activist Michael Franti raise a lyrical fist to "Freedom," an Afro-beat tribute to the late Fela Kuti.

Denson resorts to excessive old habits on the album's closer, a nine-minute, solo-swapping "Elephants" stampede (13 musicians, zero vocals). But by this time, if your quaking booty has carried you this far across "The Bridge," there's no turning back.

-- Michael Deeds

(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8153.)