Under Rug Swept (Warner Bros.) / Always Got Tonight (Reprise)

Alanis Morissette / Chris Isaak 

Under Rug Swept (Warner Bros.) / Always Got Tonight (Reprise)

In its least appealing cartoon in recent memory, The New Yorker printed a drawing of a smoking man and a bare-chested woman in bed together. "Mind if I journal?" the woman asks, retrieving a book and pencil from her nightstand. What makes the image troubling isn't its hoary setup or its baldly Playboy-like inclusion of pen-and-ink nipples but the way the scene suggests a post-coital Alanis Morissette, eager to document every psychosexual peak and valley.

I can feel so unsexy for someone so beautiful, Morissette complains on "So Unsexy." She remains the standard bearer for mush-mouthed self-help tropes as rock lyrics, a mantle she assumed by selling twelve million copies of a disc that made stalking and sexual obsession safe for adolescent femmes fatales everywhere. She was easier to endure on 1998's Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, a creepy toothache of an album from which the singer extracted some soaring choruses and darkly alluring sonic textures.

On her third studio album, Morissette charts exciting emotional growth with the passive-aggressive "You Owe Me Nothing in Return" but otherwise retreats to the usual awkward autobiography over risk-free rhythms and familiar chords. She produced Rug herself, but its sound doesn't swerve from the slugfests Glen Ballard used to engineer for her. Most songs are hook-free, leaving Morissette's polysyllabic stews (it's unclear whether the last verse of "Narcissus" means to rhyme lick your ass with dance the dance or so oblivious) to boil over. She still writes as though she learned English from old a-ha records (we needed time to marinate in what "us" meant), and she still sings with the strange, robotic elocution of REO Speedwagon's Kevin Cronin.

Are you both masculine and feminine? Are you funny? À la self-deprecating? Chris Isaak might answer yes to more than a handful of Morissette's "21 Things I Want in a Lover" queries. With precisely those qualities, Isaak has all but worn down the treads on his well-traveled image as pop's romantic heir to Roy Orbison. Isaak's croon never hits Orbison's stratospheric highs, but the attitude behind every note -- nonmalevolent sexuality, tenderness bordering on self-parody -- could call no one else pappy.

That remains true despite Always Got Tonight's title song, a thudding rocker with a wah-wah hangover and hair-of-the-dog power chords unlike anything else in Isaak's dreamy canon. Isaak might be franchising his clean-cut wit on his laid-back Showtime series, but he remains elegantly lovesick on disc. And even when Isaak flirts with ProTools and hires a clutch of high-dollar sidemen, the gentility of his singing and the glistening surfabilly guitar lines of longtime foil Kenney Dale Johnson keep things predictably tasteful. Isaak is no less an infatuation junkie than Morissette and no less self-absorbed a persona, but of the two schtick figures, his act is more satisfying for its winking acknowledgement of the calculation behind it. If listening to Isaak unbutton is no longer fresh, hearing Morissette come unglued has never been entertaining.

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