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A talent confused by his ambitions

RECORD RACK

May 27, 2008|Richard Cromelin, Jeff Weiss, Ann Powers

Usher

"Here I Stand"

(LaFace/Zomba)

***

Usher must really take criticism to heart. One of the prominent complaints about his last album, "Confessions," was that it was too long, at some 73 minutes, so now the Atlanta-based R&B star delivers a follow-up that's shorter -- by about a minute.

The sheer bulk of "Here I Stand" (out today) requires more commitment of a listener than many of the protagonists in Usher's songs of conflicting urges are able to muster. The album would be much better without its excess of undistinguished ballads, but that aside, it's a more accomplished version of "Confessions," the hooks more effortless, the singing even better, the songwriting more consistent.

"Confessions" was the onetime teen prodigy's resoundingly successful adult breakthrough, and four years later comes his "mature" album, the first since he's become a husband and father. That experience colors some of the songs, where he grapples with the idea of settling down and eternal devotion. In "Appetite," which describes an airport encounter with documentary-like detail, temptation isn't the prelude to an affair but a demon that's endangering true love.

Usher treats parenthood more perfunctorily, with a sticky little pledge to be there for his son, but at least these moments offer a sense of growth. They don't define the album, which is fine, because Usher is more fun when he's on the prowl. You don't want him pulling out family photos after he's dimmed the lights and poured the champagne.

A take-charge guy, he does like to set the scene, as he indicates in "This Ain't Sex," which should more properly be called "This Ain't Just Sex," with its convergence of lust and love. For the purely carnal, you can't beat the single "Love in This Club," with its sweet, Akonian minor-chord feel, swirling, sensuous production by Polow Da Don and Usher's insistence on right here, right now.

When he sings "I don't care who's watching, watching, watching . . .," his voice flutters and soars, and you realize that sometimes it's best to just succumb to the pure pleasures of that feathery but forceful voice. It's as close as anyone's to Michael Jackson's, especially on catchy, old-school tracks such as "This Ain't Sex" that evoke "Off the Wall."

Even as the quality of the material fluctuates, you can count on Usher's singing to provide something memorable -- sweetness and power on the anthemic ballad "Moving Mountains" or relaxed intimacy on the light, minimalist Motown homage "Something Special."

Usher might be naturally gifted, but he's not a visionary like Prince or prime-time Jackson.

With an eye on Broadway, a foot in hip-hop, his pelvic region in an R. Kelly-like erogenous zone and his heart in buoyant pop-R&B, he's aiming to forge an all-purpose entertainer. But these ambitions just seem to fence in what could be one of pop music's great free spirits.

-- Richard Cromelin

--

The Reverend's voice is divine

Al Green

"Lay It Down" (Blue Note)

***1/2

Woody Allen once opined that 80 percent of success is showing up, an adage that proves especially accurate when applied to the music of Al Green. Since the 62-year-old son of a sharecropper paired with Willie Mitchell for 1969's "Green Is Blues," every time he shows up in the recording booth he brings one thing that few performers can match: namely, his now-fabled, almost extraterrestrially gorgeous voice, a delicate but rich timbre that reaches hard-to-reach notes as though it came equipped with a stepladder.

Of course, Green has had his share of missteps in his 40-plus-year recording career, but more often than not, the mere presence of his seraphic croon is good enough to turn a mundane song into a work of beauty. Luckily for Green, the tunes on "Lay On Down," his third effort on the Blue Note label, are more than serviceable. Ditching Mitchell (who had produced Green's last two records) in favor of Roots maestro Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson and James Poyser, the arrangements are meticulous and supple, with the trio wisely enlisting red-hot neo-soulsters the Dap Kings and Philly R&B legend Larry Gold for horns and strings, respectively.

As for Green, his voice sounds as though it's been preserved in amber, with the ordained minister still blessed with a limitless register that he gainfully employs throughout the 45-minute length. Tracks like the funky finale, "Standing in the Rain," prove that though Green might be able to qualify for the AARP, he can still get down, while the swooning title track amply demonstrates that Green still knows his way around a ballad better than anyone. Featuring some of the Reverend's finest work in years, Green's latest is proof positive that as important as it is to show up, you still need to know how to lay it down.

-- Jeff Weiss

--

A song cycle colored by illness

Spiritualized

Songs in A&E (Universal/Spaceman)

***

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