Looking 4 Myself
Like dozens of other teenage superstars, Usher sold millions of records during the late-90s, back when pop music was dominated by boy bands and Disney starlets. The teen-pop scene crashed and burned during the new millennium, but Usher kept moving forward, charting hit after hit, while most of his contemporaries passed into irrelevance.
Now, fifteen years after his first multiplatinum album, Usher is still the reigning king of R&B. He pays respect to those who ruled before him on “Looking 4 Myself,” a record steeped in the high falsetto melodies of Prince and early Michael Jackson. “Looking 4 Myself” isn’t a retro album, though; it’s funky and futuristic, with adventurous pop songs that set their sights on the dance floor one minute and the bedroom the next.
On tracks such as “Scream,” Usher holds onto his crown by mixing the basic ingredients of Ibiza club music - throbbing bass lines, thumping drum machines and gauzy synthesizers - with melodies that wind their way skyward, building up to a short, explosive chorus. It’s a familiar trick, one that pushed songs like “OMG” and “DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love” to the top of the charts, and it still works.
Slow-jams such as “Climax” are more rewarding, though, as they pull the spotlight away from the album’s all-star producers and place it back on Usher’s voice. He’s a first-rate crooner, capable of taking melodies into some very unexpected places, and it’s nice to hear him singing without Auto-Tune. At the same time, he pushes the machismo meter into the red with lyrics about sexual conquests and upper-crust living, a move that cheapens the ballads and reminds us that everybody, even kings, could benefit from a little humility.
Falling Off the Sky
“Falling Off the Sky” is the very definition of a reunion album, bringing the original version of the dB’s back together after a two-decade absence. Don’t expect these guys to waste their time pining for the halcyon days of the early 1980s, though.
“You better wake up, wake up, wake up! That time is gone,” Peter Holsapple urges on the opening track, a pop-rock gem that brims with jangling guitar and rattling tambourine. It doesn’t matter if he’s singing to his bandmates or his fans. His point is clear: The dB’s want to move forward, not look backward.
At the same time, “Falling Off the Sky” sounds very much like the classic, Reagan-era group that carried Big Star’s power-pop torch into the 1980s and laid the groundwork for blockbuster bands such as R.E.M. The guitars chime, the keyboards swirl and the melodies float along with breezy ease, whether they’re sung by Mr. Holsapple, Chris Stamey or drummer Will Rigby, who contributes his first song to any dB’s album with the slap-happy “Write Back.”
With three members sharing the frontman role, the dB’s sound more like a full-fledged band now than they ever did. They’ve become a genuinely better band, too, capable of crooning their way through lush, orchestral pop gems such as “Far Away and Long Ago” and muscular, psychedelic epics such as “The Adventures of Albatross and Doggerel.”
A multidecade breakup can sap a band of its power. Here, the long break has only added depth and maturity to the group’s songwriting.
Ashes and Roses
Mary Chapin Carpenter
Don’t let the casual tempos and softly strummed acoustic guitars fool you. “Ashes and Roses” is Mary Chapin Carpenter’s heaviest album to date, inspired by the death of her father, her divorce and the pulmonary embolism that nearly took her life.
Songs such as “What To Keep And What To Throw Away” are steeped in heartbreak, and Miss Carpenter’s voice - often backed by little more than a string instrument and light percussion - registers every ounce of hurt. There’s redemption to be found at the end of “Ashes and Roses,” though, and the bare-boned arrangements help turn this 13-track album into a classic-sounding folk record. A guest appearance by James Taylor, who duets with Miss Carpenter on “Soul Companion,” certainly doesn’t hurt, either.