Both in his own work and as a hired-gun co-writer, Jules Shear has often appeared in collaborative mode, which makes the concept of Between Us—15 duets with various peers—a seeming natural for this overlooked singer-songwriter. Unfortunately, while the album displays the winning vulnerability that he has contributed to records by the likes of Cyndi Lauper, Tommy Keene, and the Bangles, it ultimately seems monochromatic. Not surprisingly, Shear’s debut on High Street (a Windham Hill subsidiary) is the first acoustic-based long-player for this “Unplugged” architect (he was the MTV program’s original host) in nearly a decade. But whereas 1989’s Third Party benefited from the presence of Church guitarist Marty Willson-Piper and an aura of quizzical wryness, this thoroughly pretty disc stacks one slow-to-midtempo ballad atop another until the listener drifts off, only to wonder aloud later, “Hey, is there a record playing?” Inoffensive intelligence reigns, except for a few patches where Shear’s smarts turn really dumb. Most egregious is “On These Wheels Again,” an apparent stab at the Americana market (replete with dog barks and Jimmie Rodgers namedrop) that Suzzy Roche should’ve known better than to get involved in. Shear has fallen into production traps in the past—on 1985’s Eternal Return, for example, an LP of great, empathetic relationship songs at least faintly damaged and dated by its era’s pop-radio requirements. But some of that old cutout’s excessiveness is just what this failed celebration of good taste needs.—Rickey Wright