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MUSIC REVIEWS: Toxicity's in the ear of the listener

"POISON'D," Poison (EMI America/Capitol)

If an album of classic rock songs covered by Poison sounds awful, it is. And if that same album sounds pretty cool, it can be that, too.

The reason this is true is that "Poison'd" is just what anyone would expect of it. So fans of hair bands in general and Poison in specific can re-indulge their guilty pleasure while haters of hair bands in general and Poison in specific already know just how much they'll despise this latest adventure.

Credit the group for its gutsy choice of material. "Poison'd" includes new, Don-Was-produced versions of songs by the Rolling Stones ("Dead Flowers"), David Bowie ("Suffragette City") and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers ("I Need To Know"). In addition to the eight new tracks are five songs previously covered by Poison, including Kiss's "Rock and Roll All Nite," The Who's "Squeeze Box" and Grand Funk Railroad's "We're an American Band."

So Poison didn't decide to put their stamp on rarities, they opted to hitch their wagon to the staples of rock 'n' roll. And what message the lyrics fail to send, the song-selection does: Poison wants attention.

Instrumentally, the group sounds as vital and cheesy as ever -- particularly guitarist C.C. Deville, who offers more than a few of squealing solos. The quality is mixed (some of these cuts are a couple of decades old), but Poison generally takes great material and massages it into a heavy-metal/bar-band context.

Vocalist Bret Michaels -- who is set to star in the reality show "Rock of Love," set to debut July 15 on VH1 -- doesn't fare as well, sounding a little too karaoke-ish most of the time. But if this were competitive karaoke, he'd be a good bet to win.

In the most heartening turn, the band respects the original songs enough not to attempt to reinvent them.

Even a long-irrelevant Poison won't stoop that low.

Rating (five possible): 2-1/2

"SCARRED," Johnette Napolitano (Hybrid)

The cover says plenty before you even play the first note. There's a colorless photo of a slumped-over woman -- looking down, her hair in her face -- and underneath the grim photo is the title: "Scarred."

Even the font is depressing.

If anyone can deliver slit-your-wrists music, it's Johnette Napolitano, and the Concrete Blonde vocalist goes deep into the veins on her solo debut.

An artier release than those she's produced with her Los Angeles-based band, "Scarred" suffers from overblown self-importance and histrionics, which in turn don't make it particularly accessible.

Still, the overkill is a tradeoff for Napolitano's intriguing twists.

"Scarred" seems to document one mammoth-sized psychological breakdown the likes of which may make some listeners feel guilty for intruding. Yet this is the downfall of an extrovert, and she needs an audience.

Napolitano doesn't quite play her hand with opening track "Amazing," an ominous air hanging over the Gothic electro-rock as she nonetheless talks and belts such lines as, "There's no way for you to see the magic all around you when you turn your eyes on me."

However, she sounds pointedly despondent with her cover of Coldplay's "The Scientist," and when she gets to the title track and blows out every syllable of the line "I! Am! So! Scarred!" ... Well, some may just volunteer to euthanize her themselves.

Napolitano is part beat-poet, part rocker as she chugs along through these performance pieces. Songs feature bracing alternations of shrill electricity and either her craggy spoken voice or yowling choruses as she's "hating my life without you in it" or hoping to "make it through this one alive."

There are timeless, and often pretty, hooks crammed into the thrash and simmer of the arrangements, despite a couple of cuts that seem like good ideas gone bad (including the dragging, meditative "Like a Wave" and whimsical "My Diane").

For her vital conclusion, Napolitano signs off on the upswing with "I'm Up Here," presenting herself as a woman who's a bit crazy, but determined to pull out of it.

No one can accuse her of not going far enough down the rabbit hole.

Rating: 3-1/2

"SLOW MOTION ADDICT," Carina Round (Interscope)

Carina Round's "Slow Motion Addict" is consistently intriguing, if not relentlessly engaging, and although listeners will detect traces of others in her work, Round has impeccable taste in role models -- including Polly Jean Harvey, Kate Bush, Patti Smith, Bjork and Fiona Apple.

The Glen Ballard-produced "Slow Motion Addict" ultimately portrays a well-rounded Round, a native of the English Midlands who establishes her own identity beyond her obvious derivations.

The release shows marked growth from 2004's solid "The Disconnection," despite the fact there's no new track that has comparable power to the unhinged "Into My Blood" from the previous release. In lieu of one masterful song and a collection of overshadowed ones, "Slow Motion Addict" features five great cuts and no clunkers.

The new release is also less formulaic and less cryptic than its predecessor.

Round is up for whatever Ballard tosses her way, whether it's the swampy electronics of "Gravity Lies" or the vaguely New Wave construction of "Want More."

She's a live wire in the peals of electricity of "Ready To Confess," stretching her voice as the blistering tension ramps up and up, yet she never loses her melodic touch. On the flipside, she slinks into the dark seduction of "Down Slow," breathily issuing the suggestive refrain: "Slow down/Slow down/Slow down/Stop."

The singer is also sexy in a weird, Elastica kind of way on the bass-heavy/hoot-supported "How Many Times," and she knocks out a caustic reflection on success on the rowdy rocker "Take the Money."

Also, while "Come To You," starts off with a dorky, Pink-esque bit of grandstanding, Round ultimately drives it home as the empowering anthem it needs to be.

As with "The Disconnection," the momentum of the new collection falters toward the end. Nevertheless, "Slow Motion Addict" is that rare release that is at once raw and polished, its hooks and emotions sticking around after the last note fades.

Rating: 4