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By Michael Henningsen

APRIL 19, 1999: 

Floraline Floraline (Minty Fresh)

When I was in high school in Lubbock, Texas, in the mid-'80s, I used to trek down to the indie record stores around Texas Tech to buy overpriced imports in stylish, enigmatic sleeves on labels with intriguing names like Cherry Red, Blanco y Negro and 4AD. Something tells me the five members of Atlanta's Floraline did the same thing, since much of their self-titled debut sounds like it could have come out on Factory Benelux 15 years ago. This is a compliment.

But as much as I still love those '80s bands, some of them were mostly getting by just on wafty atmosphere alone. Floraline, on the other hand, matches this gentle ambience to strong pop hooks and memorable choruses in substantial, catchy songs like "I Should Say" and "Just the Way." On a more current note, the dreamy "I Forgot" takes a page from St. Etienne or Air, with Linda Sharp's wonderful, jazz-inflected voice and a lovely flugelhorn solo floating above Abe Burgess and Darren Tablan's pillowy keyboards.

Floraline may not be the most original band in the world (along with the abovementioned, toss in hints of Ivy, Komeda and the poppier side of Stereolab), but they do what they do with such panache that complaints about derivativeness sound churlish. Sure, you've heard this sort of thing before. But rarely have you heard it done so well. ¡¡¡¡¡

Julian Lennon Photograph Smile (Fuel 2000)

"Did Julian Lennon suddenly grow credibility while I wasn't paying attention?" my friend Jeff asked after I praised this album. I don't blame his skepticism--the mid-'80s hype that overwhelmed Lennon's debut had everything to do with a dead father, a famous surname and aging baby boomers who treated the poor guy like a fragment of the True Cross while ignoring every aspect of his own music. Actually, despite the now-dated and far too slick Phil Ramone production, Valotte was a solid singer-songwriter effort. Unfortunately, the rushed follow-up, The Secret Value of Daydreaming, was a melody-deficient mess, and when Lennon returned a few years later with the much-improved Mr. Jordan and Help Yourself, nobody wanted to know.

Eight years later, Lennon's liner notes call Photograph Smile "the first Julian Lennon album," and while that's overstating the case a bit, it certainly does feel like a new beginning. His voice has matured, sounding a bit deeper and rougher than before, and it and his obliquely confessional lyrics fit nicely in the low-key arrangements. These are heavy on piano, acoustic guitars and string sections, which are alternately serene ("Day After Day," the absolutely lovely "Good To Be Lonely") and queasy/creepy ("Believe," the psychedelicized "Crucified"). Early reviews overused the word "Beatles-esque" even more than usual, but truthfully, Photograph Smile feels more in kinship with quirky '70s singer/songwriters like Harry Nilsson, Tom Newman, Kevin Coyne and even Robert Wyatt. Julian Lennon has found where he belongs. ¡¡¡¡

Beth Orton Central Reservation (Deconstruction/Arista)

Beth Orton might have first gained notice as the singer for UK dancefloor specialists the Chemical Brothers, but at heart she's a folk-influenced singer/songwriter. Her phrasing even recalls Joni Mitchell's, albeit in a much lower, smokier register. Orton's second album covers much musical ground, from the Astral Weeks vibe of "Sweetest Decline" to the Lisa Germano-esque "Feel To Believe." However, Orton's saving grace is that the different influences are melded seamlessly, turning into one instantly identifiable sound. Central Reservation's 12 lengthy tracks unfold slowly, but thankfully never overstay their welcome (not even the hypnotic seven-minutes-plus "Pass in Time"), and the overall feel is most analogous to a late-'90s post-trip-hop take on the folky-jazzy-pop of mid-period Everything But the Girl, whose Ben Watt guests on the final track, one of two different songs called "Central Reservation." One of the year's nicest surprises. ¡¡¡¡

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