“LOOKING 4 MYSELF”
Usher has always had so many things going for him — the soulful voice, the smooth dance moves, the movie-star good looks and, more recently, the business savvy — that it becomes really easy to coast.
That’s not to say that Usher doesn’t work hard, since no one lasts 18 years at the top of the music industry without working for it. But on “Looking 4 Myself,” Usher doesn’t take it easy for one minute. His seventh studio album pushes the boundaries of R&B and dance music to offer surprises at every turn.
The leadoff single “Climax” is a gorgeous electronic ballad that showcases Usher’s tender falsetto and Diplo’s sweeping production that never goes over-the-top. He channels James Brown and the Jackson Five on the funky good time “Twisted,” with the help of Pharrell. On “Numb,” he hooks up with Swedish House Mafia for a soaring slice of EDM that rivals his hit with David Guetta, “Without You.”
Regardless of the sonic situation, though — he tackles a bit of Gotye-ish pop simplicity in the title track and the heavy hip-hop jam on “Hot Thing” with A$ap Rocky — Usher makes sure his vocals are still the song’s focus. He has so much confidence in his vocals that he even tries to keep up with Rick Ross using only his falsetto in “Lemme See.”
“Looking 4 Myself” may not match the four No. 1 singles that flew off “Confessions” in 2004-2005, but it’s actually his best album yet.
“THE BRAVEST MAN IN THE UNIVERSE”
As a singer, songwriter, and guitar player, Bobby Womack was integral to some of the greatest achievements of Sam Cooke, the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Sly Stone, and Janis Joplin, and in the ’70s and ’80s he had R&B hits of his own such as “Across 110th Street” and “I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much.”
Now 68, he’s been quiet for most of the last two decades, but Damon Albarn coaxed him back to appear on Gorillaz’s 2010 album “Plastic Beach” and for its subsequent tour, and Albarn is partly behind “The Bravest Man in the Universe,” Womack’s first album of new material since 1994.
“Bravest Man” isn’t an attempt to recapture glory days; it’s a modern re-creation, akin to the recent work that coproducer Richard Russell did with the late Gil Scott-Heron. Womack’s peerless, gritty voice mingles with loping Gorillaz-like beats and electronics on coolly soulful ballads (“Dayglo Reflection,” a duet with Lana Del Rey) or thumping celebrations (“Jubilee,” one of two gospel numbers).
Womack may not be the bravest man in the universe, but he’s hands-down one of the most soulful.
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
“THE LION THE BEAST THE BEAT”
Idiosyncratic Vermont-based singer-songwriter Grace Potter’s unlikely trajectory began in 2002 as part of the jam-band circuit and has gone on to include collaborations with artists as divergent as Kenny Chesney and the Black Keys. The diversity in Potter’s resume speaks to her artistic gifts and weaknesses. On her sixth release, “The Lion the Beast the Beat,” Potter credibly tackles different sounds and genres but never latches on to one that seems distinctly her own.
The album is a schizophrenic affair that showcases Potter’s ability as a multi-instrumentalist and powerhouse singer while also hinting a bit too clearly at a venal desire for mainstream acceptance. Songs such as the headache-inducing title track, a ’70s-rock-style amalgam of big riffs and bellowing vocals, recalls war-horse acts like Heart at their worst. The mawkish “Stars” is equally tough to digest.
Potter is capable of being exceptionally good. At her most beguiling, tracks such as the minor-key noir ballad “Timekeeper’” allow the full force of her vocals to roll out with an agreeable subtlety. That song, with its soul progression and death-is-closing-in sentiment, evokes an atmosphere of heartsick, existential dread that would easily fit alongside the best of Neko Case.
This persistent tension between grit and gloss renders Potter’s work simultaneously intriguing and frustrating. One senses the important artist who lies just beneath the veneer of ready-made genre exercises, but it is equally possible to imagine her growing more generic. The latter approach might represent an easier route to commercial viability, but the extent of her very real talent would make that outcome a shame.
“IN OUR HEADS”
“Remember when people thought the world was round?” asks Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor on “Motion Sickness,” the vertiginous opening track of the London electro-poppers’ fifth long-player. “Everything spins,” he continues, an apt sentiment for a band that finds itself in a disorienting new groove.
“In Our Heads” is Hot Chip at its most introspective. From the vulnerability of “How Do You Do?”, to the plaintive slow build of “Let Me Be Him,” the boys are downright ponderous.
The disco-indebted hip-shaker “Night And Day” plays like some dirty, digitized answer to P-Funk. Which is to say that Hot Chip may have slowed things down a bit, but they’re still full speed ahead.
“THE IDLER WHEEL”
You learn a lot about Fiona Apple by what she chooses to reveal in the lyrics to her new album, “The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than The Driver of the Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do.” A songwriter whose greatest flaw is evidenced in the extended title, the Los Angeles singer and pianist has on her latest record ironically offered her most focused, refined and best-edited album in the 16 years since her (one-worded) debut, “Tidal.”
Over the course of a perfectly sequenced 42-minute album, Apple describes herself as “a still life drawing of a peach,” “all the fishes in the sea,” “a fugitive too dull to flee,” a tulip in a cup, a dewy petal and a moribund slut. These sorts of reveals are nothing new, of course.
Apple, 34, has always been a first-person songwriter unafraid of sharing intimacies and speaking in absolutes. But because this is only her fourth album since 1996 and her first since 2005’s “Extraordinary Machine,” few had any idea of the ways in which she had perfected her craft in the last seven years.
Apple’s “The Idler Wheel” is an exquisitely rendered work, with as many thrilling moments of silence and space as with vocal drama. It’s essential 2012 listening for anyone interested in popular music as art. And like all great albums, it’s an encapsulation of all that has come before it as filtered through a singular aesthetic.
“The Idler Wheel” embodies American musical styles ranging from Tin Pan Alley to funk and carries the weight of generations. Inside her craft is a whole lineage, from the stormy R&B of Nina Simone on “Valentine,” to the jazz runs of Thelonius Monk on “Jonathan,” the way she pinches her voice like Billie Holiday on “Left Alone” to the barrel-house style of Fats Waller on “Periphery” (which features percussion that sounds like feet shuffling in gravel).
You can hear inspiration trickling down in every note of “The Idler Wheel,” as though within her voice is her ancestry. But the record wouldn’t be anything without the melodies, the drama and the sheer creativity at work, the kind that is wonderfully jarring. Like Apple’s doodles, which are peppered throughout the CD booklet, her songs at first look to be the works of a talented diarist. But they blossom once they hit air.