HUMMIN' TO MYSELF

Linda Ronstadt

Linda Ronstadt can kiss goodbye any lingering self-esteem issues. Back in the mid-'80s, when the rock singer underwent a pop makeover and recorded three strings-swept albums of romantic standards with the help of arranger Nelson Riddle, she suffered from inevitable comparisons with Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.

Since then the bar has been lowered several notches, what with everyone from Rod Stewart to Regis Philbin ascending the pop charts the old-fashioned way.

This disc marks Ronstadt's return to classic pop, but on more intimate terms. The small-combo arrangements by pianist Alan Broadbent are warmly alluring and feature a stellar array of jazz musicians, including saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, guitarist Bob Mann and drummers Lewis Nash and Peter Erskine.

Ronstadt doesn't pretend to be a jazz artist, though, even when she's surrounded by them. She's a balladeer, not an improviser, and except for a rather strident reading of "Never Will I Marry," she doesn't overextend. Torch songs and romantic reveries remain her strong suit, and her choice of songs here avoids the obvious.

The neglected gem "Tell Him I Said Hello," for example, opens the CD on a bittersweet note, with both Broadbent and Mann elegantly sustaining the tender mood established by the singer.

"Day Dream," a haunting Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn composition, also receives a welcome reprise, though it's mostly notable for Broadbent's blues-tinted accompaniment and saxophonist Bob Shepherd's soulful tenor. Cole Porter's "Get Out of Town" boasts a vibrant horn chart that mirrors the brassier aspects of Ronstadt's voice, while Sammy Fain's "Hummin' to Myself" finds the singer in surprisingly nimble form.

As for the familiar songs, suffice to say that the predictably smooth interpretations of "Cry Me a River" and "I'll Be Seeing You" will likely receive the most airplay.

-- Mike Joyce

HARMONIUM

Vanessa Carlton

Afew years ago, you might remember, Vanessa Carlton was part of a mini-movement of young female artists who played instruments and wrote their own songs -- a development regarded, then as now, as a bit of a novelty.

With the release of her sophomore disc, "Harmonium," Carlton becomes the last artist from the class of 2002 to issue a follow-up: In the interim, classmate Avril Lavigne has gone on to become, rather tediously, a faux-punk anti-Britney; Alicia Keys has become a new-school version of Roberta Flack; and Michelle Branch has gone on to do, well, whatever it is Michelle Branch does.

Carlton was always the hardest of the group to quantify, equally suggestive of an even gloomier Fiona Apple or an earnest English lit major, depending on the song. "Harmonium," a dark, meditative collection of piano-based pop tracks, hews decidedly toward the former. While Carlton's melodies have gotten roomier and more complex, her lyrics are more morose, more airless, than ever, and as a result the disc lacks even the occasional crackle of the singer's debut.

The suicide ballad "She Floats" offers some nicely creepy, Ophelia-like imagery, and "C'est La Vie" adds some desperately needed muscle, but "Harmonium" mostly feels like an album without a center, despite the presence of first single "White Houses," a lively coming-of-age ballad that pleasantly, purposefully evokes Carlton's previous blockbuster "A Thousand Miles." On a serviceable, perfectly respectable outing full of floaty, indistinctly pretty tracks, it's the best thing going.

-- Allison Stewart

Linda Ronstadt gives classic pop another try in "Hummin' to Myself," while Vanessa Carlton follows up her smash debut with the melancholy "Harmonium."