BLAME THE VAIN

Dwight Yoakam

There was probably a time when some folks got peeved that so many Monet canvases looked fuzzy. But sometimes an artist's signature style is just too darn good to give up. That's the impression that a listen to Dwight Yoakam's new CD might leave on longtime Dwight-o-philes.

For nearly a quarter-century now, Yoakam has made consistently fabulous records that all sound pretty much the same. He's held on to his traditional leanings even as twang-centricity has become an almost unmarketable trademark in commercial country-music circles.

But Yoakam seems to have headed into his latest project, his first for indie label New West Records, wanting to shake things up. He weaned himself from Pete Anderson, his career-long guitarist/producer/co-songwriter and the only constant besides Yoakam himself on all previous Yoakam recordings. Anderson's name doesn't even appear in the thank-yous on "Blame the Vain," and Yoakam wrote and produced all 12 tracks by himself. The guitars by Keith Gattis on "Intentional Heartache," meanwhile, rock like Rockpile's, and "She'll Remember" opens with a nonsensical Yoakam monologue delivered in a lousy British accent.

Yet, despite Anderson's absence and the occasional transatlantic intrusion, the package still sounds almost exactly like all the great recordings Yoakam has already made. The songs live up to the legacy, too. "I Wanna Love Again" and "I'll Pretend" should get the boots scootin'. "Does It Show" will send tears toward beers ("As night's cold shadows wrap around where hope let go / And I sit there in the dark / Does it show?" Yoakam mourns, while Gattis picks some very slow, and very Anderson-esque, licks on baritone guitar). And Yoakam infuses "Three Good Reasons" with a hiccuppy stutter that recalls vintage Elvis and Orbison and, most of all, earlier Yoakam. It's a voice that doesn't need tweaking.

-- Dave McKenna

BLINK THE BRIGHTEST

Tracy Bonham

Tracy Bonham's one of the toughest women ever to tinkle the keys of a Wurlitzer. Or so she might like you to believe.

"Blink the Brightest" is glossy with pop artifice -- in that scuffed-boot alto that is capable of surprising sweetness (although in "I Was Born Without You," it dips into harsher Alanis-like bitterness) -- and the way the note-perfect production, featuring Bonham on violin and vibes among other instruments, makes every word crisply audible in her tales of heartbreak and pain.

The line between portraying a character and succumbing to its cliches is a high wire to walk, but Bonham treads it gracefully after two other albums and an EP of this stuff. She carefully maintains the biker-chick persona with her husky voice and the occasional line like "I spilled my guts on your best shoes." When she pushes the image too far, as with closer "Did I Sleep Through It All?" she sounds like dozens of other leather-and-lace wannabes, with too cute turns of phrase: "I drank too much at the Sunday school party . . . I smoked too much during my operation." She's best on the lushly melodic "And the World Has the Nerve to Keep Turning," wherein she castigates the sun for having the, uh, masculine nerve to keep burning.

"Blink the Brightest" wouldn't work for a second if this pop diva didn't admit she's striking pose after pose. "I'm tough as nails, I'm made of stone, don't you know?" she sings. "I don't want you to see me wilting like a flower."

-- Pamela Murray Winters

Tracy Bonham perpetuates her hard-edged persona on her third album, "Blink the Brightest."The faces and accents have changed, but the heart's the same on Dwight Yoakam's latest.