March 09, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

He’s best known for the slick top 20 hit ”Barely Breathing,” but Duncan Sheik’s new album, Phantom Moon, is an understated, Nick Drake-inspired collaboration with lyricist-playwright Steven Sater. ”It’s a record for 2 a.m. with your headphones on,” says Sheik. The soft-spoken singer is clearly a guy with good taste, so we played him some melancholic classics — without identifying them — and got his take.

Rob Brunner

— Nick Drake ”Fruit Tree” ”Oh, I could go on a whole Nick Drake rant. He sang with that kind of subtlety that, obviously, I totally appreciate and love. I have to give credit to Tony Berg, who’s now the head of A&R over at Virgin. Back when I was looking for a record deal he heard my demos and played me Drake’s ‘River Man.’ My jaw dropped. That was what I had been trying to do, and some guy did it 20 years ago.”

— Bob Dylan ”I’ll Keep It With Mine” ”Dylan is a great singer. If you watch footage of him on stage with just a guitar, he’s singing his ass off. It’s very impressive. All those people who said, ‘He can’t sing …’ What? He has a unique timbre to his voice. Nowadays, the general public seems to like music that’s totally crafted and in its exact right place. But real music lovers — aficionados who know a lot and musicians themselves — seem to like music that has all this crazy eccentricity and idiosyncrasy.”

— The Zombies ”A Rose for Emily” ”Harmonically, it’s really adventurous. I think the culture at large had more sophisticated ears [in the late ’60s]. People don’t have the same kind of seeking mind now. There’s not a sense of, ‘I want to look into the darker places in my soul.’ People just want to get in their car and be put in a good mood. To me, that’s a shame.”

— Curtis Mayfield ”When Seasons Change” ”My knowledge of R&B is not nearly as good as it should be, so this stuff is always gonna stump me. But I really like listening to it. This has horn players, and there’s nothing I hate more than gratuitous horns, like Phil Collins or something. But this stuff is just a total slow burn, a really cool, subtle arrangement.”

— Johnny Mathis ”Bye Bye Blackbird” ”Boy, can he sing. His technique is astonishing. Is this Johnny Mathis? It’s so weird how it made me think of Jeff Buckley for a couple of seconds. It’s just having that control of your voice.”

— American Music Club ”Johnny Mathis’ Feet” ”If I had to lay my songs at somebody’s feet, I guess it would be [former Talk Talk frontman] Mark Hollis, although I’m sure there’s a lot of it he wouldn’t like. And I’d be terribly interested to hear what David Sylvian thought [of my music]. He might be like, ‘Stop stealing my shtick, kid.’ I read a review of a recent Sylvian album that said, ‘At times he sounds like Duncan Sheik.’ That’s kind of like reviewing a John Lennon album and saying ‘At times he sounds like Lenny Kravitz.”’

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