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Times Staff Writers
Published November 16, 2003

DIDO, LIFE FOR RENT (ARISTA) Dido's new album, Life For Rent, gleams with a finish so pristine and seamless you half expect a Zamboni to come careening out of your speakers. But look past the surface sheen and you'll find a collection of songs far better than you might have expected.

Dido's 1999 solo debut, No Angel, was a pleasant-enough affair but its successes felt cheaply gained, with a style too derivative of Sinead O'Connor and Beth Orton and sales that shot into the stratosphere after Eminem sampled the No Angel track Thank You on his hit single Stan.

But Dido truly comes into her own on Life For Rent. Everything here is in sharper focus than on the debut - the dreamy voice that has finally shed its Sinead affectations, seductive melodies that instantly ensnare and lyrics with newfound emotional depth. Here and there, Dido's vocals are cool and detached to the point of being uninvolved. But that's not true of the best songs, which are suffused with longing, vulnerability and open-hearted compassion.

"I arrived when you were weak/I'll make you weaker, like a child," she sings on the swooningly beautiful Don't Leave Home, in a voice so tender you trust her not to mean it as a threat.

Looks, talent, heart and ambition - could a movie career be in the cards for Dido? Judging from the heightened artistic stakes on Life For Rent, hopefully not. B+

- LOUIS HAU, Times staff writer

LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III, SO DAMN HAPPY (SANCTUARY) Loudon Wainwright's compulsive need to commit to song seemingly every hurt, hangup and family-related guilt trip he has ever experienced can make for an entertaining night out. Wainwright has released his share of great studio recordings, but his inimitable knack for exploring uncomfortable themes with an anthropologist's eye and a lacerating sense of humor is never more evident than when he's cutting it up in front of an audience.

And so it is on his freshly minted live album So Damn Happy, which features new Loudon ruminations on the fruitless search for lasting love ("No wonder people end up with pets/Animals are much better bets"); the afterlife ("They'll be lots of drinking in heaven/Smoking and eating and sex/What you didn't do in this life bad for you/Will be totally cool in the next"); and even music downloading ("It's okay to steal 'cause it's so nice to share").

So Damn Happy inexplicably contains nothing from Wainwright's potent 2001 album The Last Man On Earth, which he was promoting when he recorded these performances. But that doesn't detract from what's here, including his touching reflections on an old photograph of him and his little sister, a fun duet with his daughter, Martha, about failing to keep in touch with loved ones, and the snarky yet beautifully melodic title track about the end of a relationship ("At least I should feel slightly crappy/But the sad thing is I'm so damn happy").

For all their yuks, the best of Wainwright's songs pack an emotional punch that many "serious" recording artists can't hope to match. Throw this disc in your CD player for proof. A

- L.H.

TRAVIS, 12 MEMORIES (EPIC) People (the press especially) love to freak out about Coldplay and fellow Brit-pop bands without giving Travis the props it deserves. Here's the deal: Travis writes catchy (try shaking these hooky refrains from your head after just one listen) tunes that are also politically or socially conscious.

Take The Beautiful Occupation, a tune protesting Britain's role in the Iraq war. Lead singer Fran Healy sings, "Half a million civilians are going to die today/but look the wrong way/then read it in the headlines." The line is matched by a tuneful guitar assault.

Or take single Re-Offender, its heady subject matter, domestic abuse, couched in chilling strings and Healy's coo, "I'm fooling myself." The chorus simmers with intensity and, yes, anthemic flair that rivals Coldplay at its most transcendent.

12 Memories is a dark affair, but it's been a tough few years for the group, especially after a diving accident that almost killed the band's drummer. But Travis soldiered on, embracing its darker side without sacrificing its poppy appeal. A

- BRIAN ORLOFF, Times correspondent

WIG IN A BOX, SONGS FROM AND INSPIRED BY HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (OFF RECORDS) John Cameron Mitchell's richly symbolic stage show, and later, film, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, has amassed a cult following, thanks largely to its fantastic soundtrack. Hedwig's songs could come from the David Bowie songbook. They're rich, revved-up glam rockers.

On this compilation CD, a fundraiser for the Harvey Milk School, Mitchell and Off president Chris Slusarenko have assembled an A-list roster of talent to cover all the songs from the show.

Highlights include Rufus Wainwright's measured rendition of The Origin of Love and Sleater-Kinney's duet with B-52 Fred Schneider on Angry Inch. Listen to the band's feral yelps layered over the rollicking guitars and try not to smile. Equally fetching duets include Cyndi Lauper's collab with the Minus 5 on the searing Midnight Radio and Yoko Ono's eerie, tormented joint jaunt through Hedwig's Lament/Exquisite Corpse with indie rock stars Yo La Tengo. And how much fun is former Pixie, Frank Black, and his jaunty update of Sugar Daddy, all electric guitar swagger and sexual bravura?

Minor missteps include Imperial Teen's distorted, decelerated and just plain warped take on the usually rocking Freaks. Same goes for Spoon (typically a fantastic band) and its sluggish Tear Me Down. B+

- B.O.

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