CATIE CURTIS

"Dreaming in Romance Languages"

Vanguard

KIM RICHEY

"The Collection"

Lost Highway

After the triumphant breakthrough of her 2001 album, "My Shirt Looks Good on You," Catie Curtis's follow-up disc, "Dreaming in Romance Languages," is a frustrating retrenchment. In contrast to the robust rhythms and tough-minded lyrics of its predecessor, the new album seems static and sentimental. Having tried on the folk-rock ambitions of a Gillian Welch or a Julie Miller, Curtis seems to have cast them off again and retreated into the singer-songwriter formulas of a Dar Williams or a Christine Lavin.

Maine-raised and Boston-based, Curtis hasn't lost her lovely soprano voice nor her knack for writing pleasing melodies. But she has thinned her arrangements by giving the drums and electric guitars smaller roles and by sticking her voice way out front. She has thinned her own voice by warbling at the top of her range and beyond rather than remaining in a more comfortable mid-range.

And she has thinned her lyrics by replacing specific imagery with awkward, new-age vagueness ("All the angels I love; they don't hang out above," she sings on "Deliver Me"; "I've been out there alone; you've got something I need," she sings on "Cross Over to Me"). She covers yet another song by Morphine's Mark Sandman and she has co-written songs with Beth Nielsen Chapman and the Blood Oranges' Jimmy Ryan, but the results fall so short of her proven potential that disappointment is the natural reaction.

In the mid-'90s, Kim Richey wrote some of the most fetching tunes in Nashville -- with her Paul Simon-like melodies, Beatlesque harmonies and subtle twang, she was an obvious heir to Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash -- but country radio wasn't interested. So, after two country albums, Richey drifted off to the pop world and made two Sheryl Crow-like CDs, but they weren't any more successful. So her new career retrospective is not titled "Greatest Hits" but rather "The Collection," a gathering of should-have-been hits.

If you missed her four previous albums -- 1995's "Kim Richey," 1997's "Bitter Sweet," 1999's "Glimmer" and 2002's "Rise" -- here's a chance to catch up with some of the loveliest adult-pop of the past 10 years. The 13 songs from those four albums are well chosen, and the two bonus tracks include the bouncy, jangly pop-rock of a new song co-written with Chuck Prophet, "Break You Down," and the original, lo-fi, acoustic demo by Richey and Pete Droge when they co-wrote "Electric Green" for the "Rise" album.

-- Geoffrey Himes

Appearing Friday at the Birchmere; Curtis also appears Sunday at the Avalon Theater in Easton, Md. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Catie Curtis, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8122; to hear Kim Richey, press 8127. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)