Breaking down Bj√∂rk isn't easy. The Icelandic dancer in the dark's unpredictable output, ever since 1993's electro-pop "Debut," has been high-concept art that's challenged and provoked, concerned more with experimenting than straightforward melodies and gotcha hooks. The gradual pull of Bj√∂rk's warped style takes hold once again on the progressively tinkered, iPad-made "Biophilia," her first playground of sound in four years. As fantastical as 2007's "Volta," though not nearly as sonically bipolar or off-putting, "Biophilia" is another out-there oeuvre, further establishing Bj√∂rk as a shot of cheap vodka. This one, though, goes down easier. She whispers in with her otherworldly voice gliding over gentle strings on "Moon," a simple-sounding starter that's perfectly suited to set the scene of dream-like whimsicality. Because then there's the dark, ever-morphing, organ-strutted stunner "Thunderbolt"; the comforting ting-ting on the anthemic "Crystalline," which builds to a thrillingly spastic end as abruptly as a nightmare; and then "Cosmogony," easily the most gorgeous song on the album ("Virus" is nearly as breathtaking). It's almost empty as it fills up with Bj√∂rk's angelic intones about, of all things, the Big Bang Theory. But that beauty fades on "Hollow," a churchy theater piece that's unsettling and probably suited for a "Human Centipede" musical. So yes, there's the usual imaginative weirdness about "Biophilia" – "Dark Matter" is exactly that – but there's also an accessibly that's not been part of Bj√∂rk's recent work. That she can say so much with so little this time – when things go oh so quiet, the silence still speaks – is a testament to her evolving, and often misunderstood, talent. Grade: B+
Indigo Girls, 'Beauty Queen Sister'
Three albums in two years and a constant touring schedule, it's almost impossible to keep up with the Indigo Girls. After last year's "Staring Down the Brilliant Dream" and "Holly Happy Days," their first holiday-themed LP, the gay-revered duo of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers do their thing on this 13-song set of reliable storytelling. But as they've come to show during the three-decade trajectory of their longstanding run, some reinvention is necessary to keep the magic coming. It ebbs and flows on "Beauty Queen Sister," which is, considering their seemingly bottomless breadth of material, a pretty decent album in their career canon. Overarching themes like love, loss and the world – the give and take – surface once again, but this is one of their most outward-looking albums, telling stories of good-ol'-days nostalgia ("Feed and Water the Horses") and a thoughtful rumination on the Egyptian revolution ("War Rugs"). It's not their most melodic or accomplished work (though they still nail those harmonies as they swap songs), and of the two other traditional studio albums released in just the last two years – so many CDs in so little time practically ask for comparisons – this latest one trails behind the rest. But it's growth. And so, as Ray and Saliers continue to shift sonically and stay fresh despite being workaholics, growing pains are almost inevitable. The biggest? "Able to Sing," a throwaway pop-rocker, and the dragging dud "Mariner Moonlighting." But there's also "Birthday Song" and string-soaked "Yoke," so good they nearly nullify any memory of the album's mess-ups. "Beauty Queen Sister" is prolific in that it's actually as good as it is – and with it, it's obvious: Indigo Girls aren't ready to give up their crown. Grade: B-
LeAnn Rimes, 'Lady & Gentlemen'
Nasty affair. Eating disorder. Gay ex-hubby. Before becoming a tabloid target, LeAnn Rimes made headlines for her precocious talent. Now she's 29 and probably taking on more men than she ever has with her 13th album, a covers project of songs by country guy greats like Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson. Ballads still suit her best, especially her delicately nuanced "Help Me Make It Through the Night" and "When I Call Your Name," taking Vince Gill's track into soulful territory. An original, "Give," is conventional but noble, though she still does more with it vocally than her contemporaries could. Years later, Rimes is still one of the best talents in the business. Now that's something to talk about.
Ryan Adams, 'Ashes & Fire'
Many of Ryan Adams' best songs are melancholy. But an album full of them? That's just overkill. On his latest hit-or-miss disc, a return to the fab songwriter's alt-country roots, only a few songs stick around after the music stops, especially lead single, "Lucky Now," a lovely nostalgic number. Same goes for the tenderhearted "I Love You But I Don't Know What to Say" – his voice so quiet it's like he's only singing to you. Lots of them could melt a stone, but they muddle together because of their stripped simpleness. His voice, which helps things along, just isn't enough to change up the monotony. Cohesion, as it ends up, is the LP's best and worst enemy – the songs sound just fine together, but they don't stand well on their own.