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POP ALBUM REVIEWS

Real soul rooted in suburbia

October 21, 2006|Ann Powers;Richard Cromelin;Ernesto Lechner

John Legend

"Once Again"

(G.O.O.D./Sony BMG)

* * * 1/2

The nature of "soul in suburbia" -- or in a posh town house like the one John Legend shares with a bunch of multicultural honeys in the video for "Save Room," the first single from his second album -- has absorbed African Americans since long before Bill Cosby donned a $300 pullover as Dr. Cliff Huxtable. The tensions of black middle-class life are played for laughs by the Wayans brothers, somberly discussed in college seminars and made danceable by artists such as Legend, the sweater-wearing college graduate who applies hip-hop's street-driven intensity to resoundingly bourgeois scenarios.

Legend makes real hip-hop soul, not rhythm-driven rap with a little melody thrown in, or ballad-based song craft plus samples, but a genuine marriage of the two sensibilities. Like his mentor Kanye West, who goes the same distance from the opposite starting point, Legend pinpoints where soul's vulnerability meets hip-hop's self-sustaining bragadoccio -- where the lover and the fighter become one complex character. Exploring that juncture with elegance and passion on "Once Again," he moves through "neo-retro" soul's cliches to flesh out his own vision of love, loss and happiness.

As a soul man, Legend values virtuosity and emotional nuance; his piano playing is light as egg whites, and he demands equal refinement from his collaborators, from fusion guitarist David Torn to bluesman Doyle Bramhall III, and from top-shelf producers including West, Will.I.Am, Craig Street and Raphael Saadiq. And like his R&B role model Marvin Gaye, Legend focuses on the interpersonal to get to more cosmic matters. With its mix of eroticism and philosophical seriousness, "Once Again" (in stores Tuesday) recalls "Let's Get It On"-era Gaye; beneath the sheet-ruffling, its songs eloquently express the fears and uncertainties of middle-class life.

Legend's accounts of serial cheating, couples' blood feuds and paramours haunted by loss are as visceral and sophisticated as the street stories of such rappers as Nas and 50 Cent. Even his happy songs -- the exhibitionist romp "PDA," the deliciously greasy "Slow Dance" -- play with ideas of pain and danger. Like Spike Lee in domestic mode -- think "Crooklyn" or "Jungle Fever," not "Do the Right Thing" -- "Once Again" uncovers personal anxieties that can't be separated from the larger social picture. The pain his characters endure reflects deep ambivalence about the very idea of happiness.

Though "Once Again" includes the by-now obligatory song questioning the current war, Legend makes his most profound connections within his music. He and his producers weave a sticky web of references, from art rock to cocktail jazz, to good old gospel to the bubblegum of "Save Room," which reworks the Classics IV AM-radio staple "Stormy." As each song moves through its song quotes and style slippages, soul itself becomes something new: a repository of half-buried memories and unresolved impulses, like identity itself.

Unlike West, Legend makes such intricate moves without fanfare. "Once Again" seems almost monotone on first impression, diminished by the middling tempos that weigh down many a ballad-driven album. Legend's singing voice, his one wild card, sometimes drags things down, too, as he strains to be more versatile than he's able. But peel back the layers of this suburban soul, and you'll find ... more layers.

*

Ann Powers

*

Finding a place and that chemistry

Badly Drawn Boy

"Born in the UK" (AstralWerks/Emd)

* * *

Damon Gough, a.k.a. Badly Drawn Boy, was never shy about his Springsteen dependency, so it's not surprising to find him adapting one of his hero's album titles, not to mention closing his new collection with a solution for any impasse: "You're my woman, I'm your man/And if we still don't have a plan we'll listen to 'Thunder Road.' "

"Born in the UK" might not achieve that iconic status itself, but it does mark a return to form for the Englishman, who won the hearts of pop connoisseurs (along with the Mercury Music Prize) with his charmingly quirky 2000 debut, "The Hour of Bewilderbeast," but has had a hard time developing his potential on his subsequent records.

Gough rediscovers some of the original chemistry in the new album, which opens with a conversation questioning the importance of one's birthplace, then rips into the title song's rousing recollection of growing up in '70s England.

Instead of sticking tightly to that social/historical thread, the album moves into a series of varied pop songs whose prevailing concern is the struggle to find a place -- in the world, and with another person.

Wistful, vulnerable, not averse to facing the dark side ("Sometimes you just have to walk away," he concludes sadly in "Promises"), "Born in the UK" is welcome because it restores some focus and direction to the one thing Gough has never lacked: heart.

Richard Cromelin

*

The best of the old and the new

Aterciopelados

"Oye" (Nacional Records)

* * * *

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