Lost Highway

Like Faith Hill, Kim Richey has finally abandoned the pretense that she's a country artist and has made an unabashed pop-rock album. But unlike Hill's "Cry," which makes only the broadest, most obvious pop gestures, Richey's "Rise" explores pop in its quirkiest, moodiest nooks and crannies. Hill has made a Michael Bolton record, while Richey has made a Lindsey Buckingham album.

Like Paul Simon, Richey is no instrumental virtuoso -- she just stands there, sings and strums an acoustic guitar -- so it has taken a while for listeners to realize that she writes some of the most beguiling melodies and freshest chord changes of her generation. They should catch on with the new album, for Richey finally has a producer, Sheryl Crow's Bill Bottrell, willing to drop the country conventions and allow the songs to blossom in all their weird beauty.

For example, "The Circus Song (Can't Let Go)" boasts not only the expected calliope motif but also the dizzying feeling of trying to follow three rings -- or three relationships -- at once. "Without You" would be a gorgeous heartbreak ballad no matter how it was performed, but the shimmering strangeness of Bottrell's synth-swathed production makes it even better. "This Love," which asks the "daughters of Jerusalem" to forgive one another, strikes such a perfect balance between Western and Eastern musics that it suggests how such a rapprochement might occur.

The verses of the opening track, "Girl in a Car," describe a pell-mell flight from heartbreak and winter in Nashville to sun and solitude on the Gulf Coast, and the weariness of Richey's descending vocal is echoed by Bottrell's ghostly pedal-steel guitar. But when she admits on the chorus, "I'm still in love with you," the song suddenly fills with longing, both for romantic reconciliation and harmonic resolution. The latter comes only after several suspenseful delays.

-- Geoffrey Himes

Appearing Thursday at the Birchmere. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Kim Richey, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8113. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)