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TIKARAM'S THE KEEPER OF HER MUSICAL FAITH

Tanita Tikaram - The Sweet Keeper (Reprise/Warner Bros.) +++ Tanita Tikaram's stunning 1988 debut, Ancient Heart, was the lyrically compelling, melodically captivating work of an angst-ridden teen-ager facing the dilemma of growing up without falling apart. Addressing everything from heartbreak to the painful severing of family ties, this British singer-songwriter bared her soul and strutted through an emotional mine field armed only with a seductive alto and a sparkling command of the pop language.

The Sweet Keeper, her equally impressive but more haunting sophomore effort, finds 21-year-old Tikaram continuing her search for trust and hope. Although her brooding demeanor and youthful vulnerability could easily turn morose, she avoids wallowing in self-pity and wears her romantic battle scars proudly ("I'm just trying to stake my place / no real fears upon this face").

Whether questioning her urge to reveal her innermost feelings on Once and Not Speak or reminiscing about a former suitor on It All Came Back Today, her attitude remains pensive but resilient. Tikaram gets downright defiant on I Owe All To You (a bittersweet farewell to a stagnant lover) and the forceful We Almost Got It Together. The latter - driven by chugging guitars and a soulful saxophone solo - is the album's most engaging track and joins her previous LP's Good Tradition and World Outside Your Window as convincing proof of her remarkably keen pop sense.

Returning producers Peter Van Hooke and Rod Argent surround Tikaram's husky, emotive voice with inventive arrangements that utilize trumpets, cellos, fiddles, string sections and acoustic pianos to create warm, inviting settings that range from ethereal jazz (Love Story, Once and Not Speak) to gospel-inflected R&B (Sunset's Arrived) and Celtic swing (Thursday's Child) reminiscent of Van Morrison's early work.

Those tasteful accents and Tikaram's graceful melodies make it easier to digest her introspective, fragmented lyrical style, which strives to capture impulsive thoughts rather than poetic perfection.

But like Ancient Heart, The Sweet Keeper puts a passionate spin on autobiographical folk-rock and keeps Tikaram hovering near the forefront of the current singer-songwriter movement.

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