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MUSIC REVIEWS: Justin Bieber’s ‘Believe Acoustic,’ Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Feeling Mortal’

- - Monday, January 28, 2013

Believe Acoustic

Justin Bieber

School Boy Records

★★½

Lock up your daughters. The young prince of pop is back, and he brought his acoustic guitar.

"Believe Acoustic" is exactly what the title suggests: an unplugged version of Justin Bieber's last album, "Believe," with acoustic guitars replacing the synthesizers. Apart from a few bonus tracks at the end of the disc, Mr. Bieber plays by the rules, sticking to a simple combination of strummed guitar and acrobatic vocals. It's like a campfire serenade, with less "Kumbaya" and more lyrics about eating fondue with your girlfriend. The whole thing is being billed as a return to his roots, a nod to Mr. Bieber's early days on YouTube, where he would perform his own stripped-down versions of popular R&B songs to whoever happened to be watching.

"Believe Acoustic" is also a way of squeezing extra cash out of material that already has been released, and only a few of these retooled arrangements shine any new light on the originals. The guitar playing is fine, but most of the fancy fretwork is done by studio musicians, and songs like "Boyfriend" — hollow-sounding in their acoustic versions — show that Mr. Bieber's strength has never been his songwriting.

Perhaps he's getting better, though. The unreleased "Nothing Like Us" ends the album with soft, candid vocals and right-hand flourishes on an upright piano. Your daughters will tell you it's about Selena Gomez, his celebrity ex-girlfriend, but "Nothing Like Us" points to a new relationship: one with songwriting itself. Maybe "Believe Acoustic" gives us something to believe in, after all.

Feeling Mortal

Kris Kristofferson

KK Records

★★★

At 76 years old, Kris Kristofferson — never one to shy away from hard truths — knows his days are numbered. He gets reflective on "Feeling Mortal," a collection of rootsy, midtempo songs about moving forward, looking back and taking stock of the things that truly matter.

Mr. Kristofferson isn't ready to throw in the towel just yet. His voice may be rusty, but his songwriting remains sharp, whether he's comparing his friend's face to "a tumbled down shack that's been lived in too long to be torn down" or dispensing clever nuggets of advice like "the time that we travel from cradle to grave [is] meant to be spent and not meant to be saved."

He's feeling defiant, too. On "You Don't Tell Me What To Do," a country ballad laced with harmonica, piano and mandolin, he refuses to let old age get in his way. "I sing my songs and I drink when I'm thirsty," he croons with resolution, "and I will go on making music."

Like Johnny Cash's "American Recordings," a series of albums recorded during the Man in Black's final years, "Feeling Mortal" turns Mr. Kristofferson's shortcomings into strengths. His voice, wobbly and withered after years of use, is pushed to the front of the mix, where it delivers each line with the authority of some old-world sage. The arrangements are filled with softly strummed acoustics and gauzy accordions, and Mr. Kristofferson never sounds overwhelmed by the band that supports him.

This is the sound of a legend aging gracefully.

Bjork

When Bjork recorded her last album, "Biophilia," she developed a series of iPhone apps to go along with each song. The interactive apps were aimed at children, serving as miniature educational programs that exposed the link between science, technology and music.

Bjork has been taking the "Biophilia" project into public schools for the past two years, holding creative workshops in New York, Iceland, Buenos Aires and Manchester, England. The apps have been the cornerstone of her curriculum, and she says that the students — particularly those from low-income areas and schools with unfunded art programs — have been responding well. The apps are free, and she has been running into some issues when it comes to reprogramming them for Android and Windows 8, two platforms that will allow more students to access the material.

That's where her new Kickstarter campaign comes into play. Those who wish to support the nonprofit "Biophilia" educational project are encouraged to donate what they can to the campaign, which runs through the end of February. Financial backers will be rewarded with different "prizes," from T-shirts to autographs to VIP seats at one of Bjork's upcoming residency shows.