By Neil Drumming
Updated October 08, 2007 04:00 AM
Kurt Iswarienko

After splitting with A&M in 2005, piano-pop ingenue Vanessa Carlton signed with The Inc. (formerly Murder Inc.), the label best known for hip-hop/R&B acts Ja Rule and Ashanti. Despite the new digs, her third album, Heroes & Thieves, doesn’t signal an urban revamp — no duets with rasping rappers, no recycled soul samples. She instead plays it safe and sticks to the ornate, sentimental formula of her Grammy-nominated debut, Be Not Nobody, and critically heralded but sales-impaired follow-up, Harmonium.

With a youthful voice and a predilection for flowery lyrics, the 27-year-old still comes off as an angst-afflicted teenager adapting her diary into song — even though she’s now rhapsodizing about adult stuff like rent-controlled apartments (”Nolita Fairytale”) and temp work (”Hands on Me”). This can be surprisingly touching and personal, as on the exuberant title track, or simply pretentious, as on ”Come Undone,” where she muses, ”I’m a sycophantic courtier with an elegant repost.”

However precious her poetry can be, Carlton always pins it to melodies that morph and expand evocatively. Heroes climaxes grandly in the soaring ballad ”Home,” followed by the choral volcano that is ”More Than This.” As sappy as this combination is, the orchestral one-two punch is also inescapably moving. And it’s the kind of thing Carlton does best — no matter what label she’s on. B