Usher, “Here I Stand”
After a four-year break, Usher’s fifth set is bursting with grown man, true-to-life tales about leaving his player ways behind (“Before I Met You”), falling in love (“Something Special,” “Lifetime” and the title track), making love (“This Ain’t Sex”) and having a child (“Prayer for You,” featuring a weeping Usher Raymond V, his new baby son). Grown-up relationships drive “His Mistakes,” about a woman who is scarred by a past fling, the piano-and-drum-laden “Best Thing” featuring Jay-Z and “What’s a Man to Do,” which finds Usher belting about loving two women at once. Still, tracks like the naughty “Love in This Club,” the sensual “Trading Places” and the Danja-produced “Appetite” confirm that Usher still hasn’t lost his young-boy charm.
Al Green, “Lay It Down”
At this point, if you’re Al Green, messing around with your formula isn’t so much unlikely as it is pure madness; it’d be like AC/DC deciding to add bassoons. Even the highly touted input of the Roots’ ?uestlove (producing with James Poyser, both in place of Green’s longtime go-to Willie Mitchell) results more in decoration than innovation. It’s not the new-blood-fueled revelation some might have hoped for, but who cares? Green’s voice remains lithe magic, and he’s brought in such contemporary all-stars as Anthony Hamilton, John Legend and Corinne Bailey Rae. ?uestlove’s drums get a little boost in the mix, and Poyser’s B3 lightly brushes each song’s cheeks. But when it comes to Green, what more needs to be said? The reverend preaches on.
Cyndi Lauper, “Bring Ya to the Brink”Over 25 years, Cyndi Lauper has certainly played the singing minstrel, but also revealed deep lyrical introspection as an observer of society’s foibles. On “Brink,” she craftily meshes the two personas. Melodically, Lauper still just wants to have fun, with jaunty dance-floor jams (she traveled the world to work with beat masters Basement Jaxx, Digital Dog, Peer Astrom, Scum-Frog and Rich Morel), but after a twirl under the disco ball, listeners have the opportunity to explore layers underneath. “Same Ol’ Story” is among Lauper’s most inviting melodies ever, as she talks about how folks hold others to a different set of values than their own. “Raging Storm” is a thunderous blast, until you observe its thoughtful theme of aligning life priorities.
Spirtualized, “Songs in A & E”Jason Pierce’s sixth album as Spiritualized tows his usual load of strange melodies and fuzzy feedback, but he pushes those tendencies to the back as he dips deep here into Gothic Americana. Inspired by a live tour he did in 2007 flanked by backing singers and a seven-piece string section, some tracks from “A & E” orbit just outside of gospel and touch on the blues. The remaining songs are peaceful and pretty, with quiet orchestras floating behind tidal verses that crash and ebb like ocean waves. Pierce ties the dark to the light with poetic folk ballads like closing lullaby “Goodnight Goodnight,” making “A & E” a strange and pleasing concoction of old and new.
Orchestra Baobab, “Made in Dakar”This iconic Senegalese band last released “Specialists in All Styles” in 2002, marking a return from an extended hiatus. “Made in Dakar” is an 11-song mix of new tunes and previously recorded songs that the band has retracked in grand fashion. Several of the tunes have all but vanished, so to find them again here is a major thrill. The album offers a great retrospective on Orchestra Baobab and no shortage of stylistic turns. “Ami Kita Bay” is a combination of the mbalax style and salsa, while “Aline” is a classic Congolese rumba. “Nijaay” is a quintessential Orchestra Baobab groove highlighted by Youssou N’Dour and Assane Mboup on vocals and the distinctive sound of Issa Cissoko’s tenor sax. Also note the unmistakable Cuban feel of the tune “Cabral.”
The Futureheads, “This Is Not the World”Not so long ago, it looked like the Futureheads were a thing of the past. Dropped by Warner after a disappointing second album, “News and Tributes,” it looked like all their particular future held was a downward spiral. But this self-released third record sees them right back in form. Kicking off with terrific lead single “The Beginning of the Twist” — already a top 20 hit in the United Kingdom — it’s a fast and furious, back-to-basics punk-pop record that retools the spirit of their self-titled debut to 2008 specs. True, there’s not much in the way of light and shade, but with great songs like “Radio Heart” and “Broke Up the Time” up their sleeves, they finally possess songs as instant as their legendary cover of Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love.”
Jenny Sheinman, “Jenny Scheinman”Even though she has released four instrumental albums, Jenny Scheinman is one of those names known mostly by aficionados who’ve checked out the credits on releases by Norah Jones, Lucinda Williams and others to whom she’s brought her distinctive violin work. Scheinman’s self-titled vocal debut should certainly up that name recognition. The 11-track set — released alongside a new instrumental outing, “Crossing the Field” — has an agreeable, “Look at everything I can do” quality, from her high and lonesome take on Bob Dylan’s arrangement of the traditional “I Was Young When I Left Home” to the restrained, jazzy look at Tom Waits’ “Johnsburg, Illinois.” The album may be a little too pure and stark to bring her a Jones-style crossover, but it should certainly make her more than just a support player.
Steve Azar, “Indianola”Coming onto the country scene in 1996, Steve Azar struggled to break through on major label Mercury. But listening to his new self-released set, one gets the sense that this is the album he’s always wanted to make. At times rocking, at times bluesy, at times country, the collection fits Azar as comfortably as an old shoe. Named for the Mississippi birthplace of B.B. King, the set includes “Flatlands,” which with its greasy slide guitar speaks to Azar’s Delta roots. “Crowded” finds Azar bemoaning urban sprawl, while “The River’s Workin”’ is a working man’s anthem that conjures John Mellencamp, Bob Seger and Jackson Browne. “You’re My Life,” written with Radney Foster, could have been a hit for the Traveling Wilburys. Comparisons aside, this is an album that only Azar, with his varied influences, could make.
Tenth Avenue North, “Over and Underneath”Grace is a gift from God, but faith is sometimes a struggle, and all too often Christian music fails to explore that reality. It’s easier to serve up platitudes than explore pain and confusion, but lead vocalist/songwriter Mike Donehey doesn’t shy away from wrestling with the complexities of being a Christian. Donehey is not only a revelation as a songwriter, but also as a vocalist with a warm, heartfelt delivery that brings out the best in every song. The hit single “Love Is Here” is a perfect introduction to this extraordinary debut.