McLachlan's better than fair

Robert Johnson

three out of five stars

There's no danger that Sarah Mclachlan will ever be dismissed as the female Perry Farrell, who deserves credit more for creating Lollapalooza than for the ocassionally inspired, often self-indulgent music he made with Jane's Addiction and Porno for Pyros.

McLachlan already had an impressive body of work behind her last year when she dreamed up Lilith Fair, the all-female traveling festival that has become this summer's hottest ticket. After debuting in 1988 with "Touch", the Canadian songstress found her voice impressively with "Solace" (1991) and hasn't looked back.

Her commercial breakthrough, "FTE", was a blessing and a curse. Its slow rise into platinum territory kept McLachlan on the road for 2 1/2 years. When she finally made it back into the studio, she discovered that she didn't have any new songs in her, and took some much-needed time off.

"Surfacing," her fourth album, shows that she's over her writer's block. With co-writing help from longtime producer and musical collaborator Pierre Marchand, McLachlan digs inside herself without any hint of self-pity. Love gone right and wrong is the dominant theme, though she breaks out of the mold with "Angel," inspired by reports of heroin use in the music industry.

Musically, though, the album isn't quite "Ecstasy." Maybe she was pressed for time - trying to finish the album while planning the tour, and taking time to marry her drummer, Ashwin Sood, in February. Whatever the reason, "Surfacing" sags into piano-ballad predictability after three marvelous tunes - the edgy single "Building a Mystery," the gorgeous, haunting "I Love You" and the delicious folk-rocker "Sweet Surrender."

Her lyrics never fail her - "Do What You have to Do" is a quietly jarring tale of being unable to let go emotionally of an ex-lover - but "Surfacing's" soft- ballad center is too much of a good thing. The wailing electric guitar in "Witness" is a much-needed break, as is "Last Dance," the album-closing instrumental that features an electric-saw melody. Still, it's a relief to hear McLachlan's creative juices are flowing again. She remains one of the decade's most expressive voices; Lilith Fair is just icing on the cake.

Thanks to Toby ([email protected]) for typing this in.

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