Omara Portuondo/``Buena Vista Social Club Presents ... Omara Portuondo'' (World Circuit/Nonesuch)
Tagged the Edith Piaf of Cuba, Portuondo's sonorous and expressive duets with Ibrahim Ferrer were among the most heartfelt moments in Buena Vista Social Club's Carnegie Hall concert and subsequent Wim Wenders documentary. On the third release in the Grammy-winning Buena Vista series, Portuondo's bittersweet voice is set against a rich accompaniment including lush strings, a clarinet ensemble, jazz bands and the dream musicians from Havana's Social Club. The music is evocative of the heyday of Cuba's big-band era and Portuondo, whose theme here is love lost, found and unrequited, sings with passion and moving honesty. ``Buena Vista Social Club Presents ... Omara Portuondo'' places her voice center stage - which is just where it belongs. Portuondo, by the way, appears Sept. 29 at Royce Hall. Four stars
- Fred Shuster
Britney Spears/``Oops! ... I Did It Again'' (Jive)
Some of us sprawled on dusty gymnasium floors in the '70s, listlessly sitting though atrocities like Atomic Rooster, building the rock biz from the ground up ... for this? Of course, there's been insipid bubblegum pop through the decades, but probably never quite as transparently shallow as the banal ear candy churned out by this twittering 18-year-old ex-Mousketeer. ``Oops!'' the follow-up to Spears' multi-mega debut, bubbles with the automated rhythms of her debut while sticking to material her impressionable young fan base can relate to. A Shania Twain-penned ballad, ``Don't Let Me Be the Last to Know,'' is the best thing here while the worst is a mechanized remake of the Stones' ``(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction.'' Spears plays the Hollywood Bowl on July 31. One star
Johnny Cash/``Love, God, Murder'' (Columbia Legacy)
A legend gets his due in this three-disc set that can be purchased as a package or as individual albums. The concept is simple: Cash was asked to pick songs for three separate concept albums revolving around his favorite themes. The selections are as inspired as the music, which spans Cash's glory days at the Sun and Columbia labels as well as excellent selections from his recent albums, ``American Recordings'' and ``Unchained.'' Cash's oversize passions have always made him a fascinating study; one minute he's singing ``Swing Low Sweet Chariot,'' the next he's angrily flipping the bird to a photographer, the result of a chemically induced rage. Those dueling mindsets are reflected in the songs. The spirituals of ``God'' and the raptures of ``Love'' are informed by a despair that comes from a hard life and a questioning mind, while ``Murder'' is full of the loneliness of men who have lost their faith in God and humanity. Bono, June Carter Cash and Quentin Tarantino contribute the liner notes. (It should be easy enough to match the writer to the theme.) Simple, direct, essential music. Four stars
- Glenn Whipp
En Vogue/``Masterpiece Theatre'' (Elektra)
Lucy Pearl/``Lucy Pearl'' (Pookie/Beyond)
This ambitious 13-track opus from stylish r&b vocal trio En Vogue is a concept album about the universal theme of love, complete with classical underpinnings and a sultry number based on Beethoven's ``Moonlight Sonata.'' Still, any En Vogue album will have splashy r&b nuggets like the new disc's ``Riddle'' and ``No No No (Can't Come Back),'' while a new twist on the ``Carmen'' tale makes for an engaging, playful effort. Three stars
Lucy Pearl, containing recognizable former members of groups En Vogue, Tony! Toni! Tone! and A Tribe Called Quest, is something of an r&b supergroup with a loose-sounding style that seamlessly blends Sly Stone-style funk, hip-hop and r&b. The trio's current hit, the old-school-tinged ``Dance Tonight,'' is one of 15 tightly produced tracks linked by between-song segues that for once don't detract from the album's flow. Three stars
Bill and Charlie Monroe/``What Would You Give In Exchange for Your Soul?'' (Rounder)
Pioneering bluegrass siblings Bill and Charlie Monroe were the duo that cleared the underbrush away from Appalachian roots music, leaving a path for Phil and Don Everly (rockabilly), Simon and Garfunkel (folk-rock) and countless others to follow. This occasionally fuzzy but generally crystalline reissue of their early Bluebird 78s and radio recordings (the first of four such releases) captures the brothers' savvy ardency in twinning sacred and secular sentiments, as well as the kind of intuitive symbiotic harmonizing that only blood kin can pull off. Without ever sounding like soulful wanna-bes, the Monroes skillfully peel the color barrier off black-gospel standards like the gently rebuking ``Do You Call That Religion?'' and ``Watermelon Hangin' on That Vine.'' Coated with a gritty, coal-dust integrity, the 15 tracks include eight songs by Charlie and two by Bill, the yearning title tune (the brothers' very first released single and greatest hit), a foggy mountain classic by A.P. Carter and Jimmie Rodgers' bluesy yodeler ``In My Dear Old Southern Home.'' One spin and you, too, may be pining for a ``little ol' log cabin by the sea.'' Three and one half stars
- Reed Johnson
Joe/``My Name Is Joe'' (Jive)
Silky r&b crooner Joe is all over radio with the ballad ``I Wanna Know,'' a delicious slice of soulful pop that hasn't worn out its welcome despite countless spins. Joe's chart-topping debut proves the single isn't a fluke thanks to gems like the fast-rising ``Treat Her Like a Lady.'' Not that he needed it, but the album's star power includes duets with 'N Sync on ``I Believe in You'' and cameos from Mariah Carey and Nas on ``Thank God I Found You.'' Three stars
Various/Verve by Request (Brazil)
Looking for a soundtrack for your summer? As the days grow longer and weather turns warmer, nothing sounds better wafting out of your stereo speakers than the languid sounds of '60s Brazilian pop. Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto are the best-known practitioners of the form, but dozens of masterful artists washed up on these shores in the wake of ``The Girl From Ipanema.'' The jazz label Verve has just released some of the best albums from the Brazilian wave, a most welcome move since most of them have been long out of print.
The gems: Luis Bonfa's ``Plays and Sings the Bossa Nova'' (Four stars) featuring the masterful Brazilian guitarist in both trio and orchestral settings. The music is lush, relaxed, exquisite. Milton Nascimento's ``Milton'' (Three stars) is another ethereal pleasure, with Nascimento's soaring, ranging vocals backed by a diverse international band that includes saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist Herbie Hancock.
Two Jobim albums are also reissued, the sumptuous late '60s orchestral classic ``Tide'' (Three and one half stars) and the relatively unheralded ``Jobim'' (Three stars), a hypnotic departure in the classical tradition that features the same pensive, melancholy signature stylings of his best work.
Photo: (1) no caption (Omara Portuondo)
(2 -- 6) no caption (CD covers)