Patti Scialfa

23rd Street Lullaby (Columbia)

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At first glance, Bruce Springsteen dropping the gorgeous Julianne Phillips -- she of the "Glory Days" video (no doubt the Boss had some glorious nights with ol' Jules too) -- for E Street Band backup singer Patti Scialfa appeared to be the celebrity boilerplate for trading down at the altar, as in Andre Agassi's move from Brooke Shields to Steffi Graf.

But with her second solo studio release, 23rd Street Lullaby, Scialfa has clearly punched holes aplenty in this theory. Her smoky voice intact, Scialfa has actually gotten better with age, while Phillips has faded into obscurity. Perhaps not by mere coincidence, this tight, straightforward collection of tunes sounds like something her Boss might have put out in the late '70s -- which is to say it's very, very good, making up for its lack of ambition by way of clever road imagery and emotional honesty. The title track, which kicks off the album, is hella easy on the ears, but, like her husband's Tunnel of Love, Scialfa's Lullaby gets more poignant and pretty as it winds down, highlighted by the forlorn ballad "Romeo," a track that made a prior, more stripped-down appearance on the soundtrack for the forgettable 1998 film No Looking Back.

Scialfa's strength lies in the dreamy, introspective nature of both her lyrics and her voice. Her brassy, unconventional sex appeal -- and she has it to burn -- is rooted not in physical appearance but in a more holistic, gut quality -- something akin to Bonnie Raitt on her cover of "Angel in Montgomery." These women know what they want and, thankfully, they've got it. Ain't no boss man gonna steal that thunder out on the road. No, sir.

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