Despite A Few Blazing Tracks, This LP's Not Stellar

Stars leaves the listener a little more earthbound than the title promises.

A restless woman watches her lover sleep. Eyeing a nearby pillow, she wonders: "When all the oxygen's used up/ How will you breathe?" Elsewhere, another casualty of yet another shattered relationship sighs, "I wish I had your head in a box."

It's easy to imagine either line screeched at top volume by some raspy-voiced rocker over an ear-splitting guitar riff. But singer/songwriter Lori Carson takes precisely the opposite approach on her fourth solo album, Stars; the more malevolent the sentiment, the sweeter the voice and the softer the instrumentation she uses to convey it.

Which is not to suggest that Stars is merely a dark valentine to passive-aggressive behavior. There are plenty of happy moments here, too — though even they are delivered with the same melancholy lilt as are the homicidal fantasies.

Carson has developed an impressive vocal "vocabulary": in addition to classic girl-group choruses, she coos, whispers, mumbles and sometimes dispenses with audible language altogether. Within her deliberately narrow range lies considerable subtlety and quiet grace.

A few tracks — the aforementioned "Breathe" (RealAudio excerpt)

and "Head in a Box," for instance — find Carson in an experimental mode, combining spoken-word poetry with jazz-influenced horns and chamber-music strings, creeping along at a tempo bordering on lethargy. While some listeners may recall her collaborations with art-rockers the Golden Palominos here, such songs also bear comparison to the edgier work of Jane Siberry and Mark Eitzel.

Elsewhere, Stars sparkles with effortless pop bliss. "Take Your Time" and the title track ("Stars" [RealAudio excerpt])

are hook-laden treats, but finest of all is the album-closing "Treasure" — a tune so irresistible you'll swear you've known it all your life. Such moments place Carson in a league with post-modern tunesmiths Air and Mono, whose catchiest, beat-driven confections reinvent the notion of "easy listening."

Trouble is, once you get a taste of these high points, the lesser material seems disappointingly slight. Carson's lyrics, while serviceable, are not particularly distinguished. Beyond the boxed-head stuff, the only lines that draw attention are clunkers like "I think it scared me to find the real thing/ With so much emotion and sexual feeling." There's an overall sameness to Stars that leaves the listener a little more earthbound than the title promises.

When things come together as smoothly as they do on "Treasure" (RealAudio excerpt) though, the sky's the limit.