Jeffrey Osborne

You've got to feel for veteran R&B singer Jeffrey Osborne. What are the chances of his new CD getting noticed in a marketplace crowded with cover-tune collections that range from classic pop songbooks and Motown tributes to rock and country compilations that keep the same old hits coming ad nauseam? Slim, at best.

There are several reasons why "From the Soul" deserves a lot more attention than it's apt to receive. For starters, time hasn't tarnished Osborne's husky baritone; he's still a world-class romantic balladeer. But more important, Osborne never sounds as if he's merely on assignment here, dutifully performing songs that have been chosen for him. Instead he leaves the impression that he's created a mix tape for soul ballad fans who grew up listening to the radio in the '60s, '70s and '80s.

What seals the deal is his often surprising choice of tunes, which include a few gems closely associated with female artists. His expressive takes on vintage hits recorded by Brenda Holloway ("Every Little Bit Hurts"), Barbara Mason ("Yes, I'm Ready") and Aretha Franklin ("Until You Come Back to Me") rank among the album highlights, along with the evocative tributes to Teddy Pendergrass ("Close the Door") and Curtis Mayfield ("People Get Ready"). The biggest surprise? Buffalo Springfield's 1967 rock anthem "For What It's Worth." Refitted with a gospel-tinted R&B arrangement, the song ends up sounding like something Mayfield and the Impressions might have recorded in their prime.

Osborne personalizes these songs. His voice is as pliable now as when he was a fixture on the R&B charts. Yet despite some fleeting hip-hop touches, he's not interested in creating neo-soul updates. Rekindling the original glow, it seems, is his only aim.

-- Mike Joyce


James McMurtry

"Childish Things," like James McMurtry's 1989 debut, "Too Long in the Wasteland," spends most of its time looking back.

McMurtry's young alter ego visits relatives over a holiday weekend ("Memorial Day") and longs to go to the circus ("See the Elephant"). Older and wiser, he laments a lost love in "Charlemagne's Home Town," where he stays in a room "dark and close, the way I like it." Using a steady, echoing drum and winding accordion, McMurtry, as producer, transforms the track and turns out more than just another roots-rock album.

But the songs, mostly written by McMurtry, are his greatest accomplishment here -- particularly "We Can't Make It Here," which looks not back but straight out at the here and now. With filmic elegance and efficiency, McMurtry starts with a view of a homeless Vietnam vet and then one of the troops coming home from the latest overseas conflict. He pans over to an abandoned factory before going back out to sweep over "empty storefronts around the square." Then he enters a bar where the regulars who can still afford their booze are drinking it with joyless desperation.

And as he becomes more and more a part of his own story, his anger becomes both more evident and more directed toward the corrupt and powerful: "Just try it yourself, Mr. CEO . . . Take a part-time job at one of your stores / I bet you can't make it here anymore." As he rhymes with the adeptness of a rapper and the passion of a doomsday evangelist, McMurtry's insistent diatribe leaves you no alternative but to pay attention.

-- Pamela Murray Winters


Liz Phair

In 2003, Liz Phair -- everyone's favorite potty-mouthed indie-rocker -- received a trip to the rock-crit woodshed.

On that year's self-titled CD, she made like Avril Lavigne's stepmom, teaming with the younger singer's schlock-rock song doctors the Matrix, scoring a saccharine semi-hit with "Why Can't I?" and, to judge from the disc's album-art, spending serious quality time shopping the Delia's catalogue for wardrobe.

Dumped on though the album widely was, it still included a clutch of keepers. And Phair's charmingly palpable desire to navigate mainstream tastes added a sense of adventure to what many dismissed as a sellout.

Now comes "Somebody's Miracle," and it's, well, more of the same. Pop rockers such as the title track and "Stars and Planets" are pithy, smart and accessible. And while the overwrought "Everything to Me" does veer dangerously close to power-ballad territory, the tune ultimately owes far more to pre-indie icons Big Star than Celine Dion.

Meanwhile, tracks like the groove-oriented "Lazy Dreamer" and the jangly set-opener "Leap of Innocence" find Phair in full command of her not-so-secret weapons: lyrics that border on the embarrassingly honest paired with fat pop hooks. The latter track, for instance, finds Phair confessing to a former lover that her biggest mistake "was being already married" over an outsize catchy part that's half ELO, half "Turning Japanese."

Will Phair ever make a better record than the thrill-ride great ones she cranked out in the 1990s? Not likely. Still, she's an engaging careerist, one who ought to take a rock critic or two over her knee if and when "Somebody's Miracle" finally yields the chart-topper she richly deserves.

-- Shannon Zimmerman

Liz Phair will perform tonight at the 9:30 club.

From Jeffrey Osborne, a worthwhile new take on the oldies. James McMurtry, below, looks back in "Childish Things"; Liz Phair hits rewind.