ESTHERO

"Wikked Lil' Grrrls"

Reprise

TORTURED SOUL

"Introducing Tortured Soul"

Purpose

Resurgent Canadian singer-songwriter Esthero still fancies herself a cutting-edge pop artist. We know this because she opens "Wikked Lil' Grrrls" by railing against the status quo: "I'm so sick and tired of the [expletive] on the radio and MTV -- they only play the same thing, no matter where I go, I see Ashanti in the video, I want something more." Hey, don't we all?

So what has Esthero come up with as an alternative? More hits than misses, it turns out, but let's start with the latter. Nothing here sounds more calculated to enhance Esthero's trip-hop outre profile than when she calls for a musical revolution or, worse, plays the role of a fashionably foul-mouthed vixen, alongside rapper Shakari Nyte, on "If Tha Mood." Suffice to say that a transcript of those lyrics will never appear in a family newspaper. Truth is, Esthero would sound more like a pop maverick if she didn't seem so hellbent on becoming one.

The good news is that her talent often manages to eclipse even her need for attention. "Wikked Lil' Grrrls" is by no means revolutionary, and the cameos by Sean Lennon, Cee-Lo Green and other guests are nothing special. But the album's charms rise to the surface whenever Esthero reveals her jazz sensibilities, as on the imaginatively arranged title track, the Rickie Lee Jones-like "Bad Boy Clyde," and the big-band blues "Melancholy Melody." On these and several other tracks, it's her artistry that stands out, not her agenda.

Tortured Soul specializes in live house music, built around a core, three-piece combo instead of a DJ and lots of gear. "Introducing Tortured Soul" boasts a lot of hypnotic club grooves, not surprisingly, with the band (plus guests) generating one percolating wave of sound after another. But beginning with "I Might Do Something Wrong," it's clear that John-Christian Urich's soulful tenor is another big plus -- almost big enough to compensate for the occasionally routine lyrics.

-- Mike Joyce

Appearing Sunday at the 9:30 club.