Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton isn't the type to willingly walk off the stage, even when country radio has long since turned to younger bombshells such as Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Sara Evans.

So after three well-written CDs of fiddle-and-mandolin music on the bluegrass label Sugar Hill Records, the 59-year-old country icon turns to a reliable comeback device: the duets album.

"Those Were the Days" is programmed for maximum commercial impact.

It's not enough that Parton performs one of the most beloved anthems of the early '70s, Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee" -- she duets with the songwriter, her friend Kris Kristofferson.

It's not enough to dust off the folk chestnut "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" -- she collaborates with reliable rock and country unit-shifters Norah Jones and Lee Ann Womack.

Parton giggles with country hunk Keith Urban and croons with bluegrass heroine Alison Krauss (and, curiously, emphasizes antiwar songs, including Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" and John Lennon's "Imagine").

But in keeping with her entire career, Parton's peppy enthusiasm and underrated arranging talents redeem the formula.

The collaborations work because Parton genuinely enjoys her partners' company (even when they're recorded in studios in different states) and hits the whistling high notes as pristinely as ever. The chills-down-the-spine highlight is Tommy James and the Shondells' echoey rock classic "Crimson and Clover" -- with a rare appearance by James -- which Parton sings like a seventh-grader at her first dance.

-- Steve Knopper


Toni Braxton

Sure, Grammy-winning R&B vocalist and Maryland native Toni Braxton may be a Libra, but she says her new album's title is as much about balance as it is her astrological sign. And, certainly, the 10-track, 40-minute record is a tidy mix of sultry slow jams and funkier mid-tempo beats -- though more cynical listeners may say the balance Braxton's producers were truly aiming for was satisfying her adult-contemporary fans while not scaring away the gold mine bootylicious demographic.

Either way, it doesn't quite work. "Libra," Braxton's first album since 2002's lukewarm "More Than a Woman," is slick and smooth from start to finish, and her deep voice is fine throughout. But small things don't sit right: The Rich Harrison-produced "Take This Ring," for example, is a feisty, bottom-heavy four minutes, but it sounds an awful lot like Harrison's other hit this year, Amerie's "1 Thing." And it's wince-worthy listening to the nearly 37-year-old, timelessly classy star slinging slang ("He trippin', she trippin', they both be trippin' ") and bad grammar ("I gots to breathe") on the otherwise catchy singles "Trippin' (That's the Way Love Works)" and "Please."

But there are also plenty of the slow burners and rich ballads that first put Braxton on the charts. "What's Good" lifts a sensual sample from the Crusaders' "In All My Wildest Dreams," while a tinkling piano gives the ballad "Stupid" an old-school, loungey feel that allows Braxton to show off her pipes beautifully. Intimate album closer "Shadowless" breaks all convention with just the singer and an acoustic guitar, undoubtedly the most pleasant counter to all the careful orchestration that "Libra" offered before.

-- Tricia Olszewski



Having failed to capture its spaced-out live show on a record after several tries, the seven-year-old O.A.R. (Of a Revolution) now goes in the opposite direction. With songwriting help from Glen Ballard, who turned Alanis Morissette into a star, and production from ex-Talking Head and studio pro Jerry Harrison, the band streamlines its rock-and-reggae improvisations into bright pop songs built for radio play.

The result is something like the Dave Matthews Band's "Everyday," the 2001 radio smash that irritated hard-core fans but created thousands of new ones. Richard On compacts his electric-guitar sound from endless onstage jams into distinctive, repetitive riffs and hooks, and singer Marc Roberge is forced to get his point across in three or four minutes. As with "Everyday," the pop discipline sporadically pays off. The opening "Heard the World" and sunny "Wonderful Day" are mid-tempo rockers that effectively juxtapose Roberge's friendly and laid-back voice with On's sharp and urgent guitars.

But O.A.R., which has roots in the Washington area but formed at Ohio State University and developed an audience through relentless touring, soon lapses into old habits. The horn-heavy reggae and ska songs (particularly "Program Director," in which Roberge begs fans to call radio stations and request their favorite songs) are flat and emotionless, as is "Nasim Joon," a '60s-style soul ballad. Eventually, Roberge runs out of ideas: "Someday we might fall -- stand tall!" he sings on the not-so-anthemic "Tragedy in Waiting." "Someday we might graduate to a perfect state -- of mind!" Avoid bothering the program director about that one.

-- Steve Knopper

O.A.R. is scheduled to appear Nov. 25 at the Patriot Center.

On her duets CD, Parton is in good company with artists like Alison Krauss and Keith Urban.