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Listening Room: Usher, Al Green and more...
Usher, “Here I Stand” (LaFace/Zomba) ***
Much has changed in the music world since Usher offered his nine-times platinum “Confessions” four years ago. While he was busy (changing his behind-thescenes team, getting married) and got busy (he and his wife had their first child, Usher Raymond V, in November), a number of other R&B/pop synthesists, notably Ne-Yo and Chris Brown, got busy on the scene themselves with their own version of the neo-New Jack sound. And the label side of the music industry began its current state of implosion. So concerns that the combination of change and personal “growth” would render the 29-year-old love man redundant were valid — but “Here I Stand,” his fifth album, puts them to rest. The 18-track set finds Usher as potent as he’s ever been, in strong, confident voice and with his all-important libido still churning on the two versions of “Love in This Club” — one featuring Young Jeezy, the other with Beyonce and Lil Wayne — on the dance floor workouts “This Ain’t Sex” and “What’s Your Name?” and on “Trading Places,” which is explicit and just kinky enough to give R. Kelly a run for his money. But matrimony and fatherhood make their mark, too, whether it’s the interlude “Prayer For You,” with the fifth-generation Usher cooing and gurgling in the background, or the pop-flavored, Stevie Wonder-style love songs “Something Special” and the title track. Jay-Z guests on the brassy make-up plea “Moving Mountains,” while Usher both ponders his past (“Before I Met You”) and rejects the negatives of his partner’s past romances (“His Mistakes”). And laying a quick cadence adopt a languid, Trickyproduced instrumental bed, Usher delivers one of his finest vocal performances ever on “Moving Mountains.” His collaborators (Tricky, Jermaine Dupri, Stargate, will. i.am, Ne-Yo and more) are typically top-notch, but on “Here I Stand” Usher holds firm as the reigning prince, if not outright king, of contemporary R&B.
Al Green, “Lay It Down” (Blue Note)***
On his first album in three years, soul great Al Green surrounds himself with younger talent — John Legend, Corinne Bailey Rae, Anthony Hamilton, the Dap-Kings Horns (Amy Winehouse, Sharon Jones) and producers Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of the Roots and James Poyser — and comes up with an 11-song set that hearkens back to the vintage of his ’70s heyday. At 62, the Grand Rapids-raised Green is in fine vocal form, playful and pleasantly sexy in the title track and “You’ve Got the Love That I Need,” funky on “Standing in the Rain,” tortured on “What More Do You Want From Me” and pop savvy on “Stay With Me (By the Sea).” The music world may champion its youth, but Green is proof that some things do indeed get better with age.
NEW & NOTEWORTHY
Angel Band, “With Roots & Wings” (Appleseed): Lloyd Maines produced this sophomore outing from the Americana band led by David Bromberg and his wife, Nancy Josephson.
Steve Azar, “Indianola” (Dang/Ride): The Mississippi born country singer wrote or co-wrote all 15 songs on his long-awaited third album.
KJ Denhert, “Lucky 7” (Mother Cyclone/Motema): The New York singer-songwriter moves to a “proper” label after several self-released albums.
The Futureheads, “This is Not the World” (nul): After taking a year off, the British quartet returns in energized form on its third release, recorded in Spain with producer Youth.
Eliza Gilkyson, “Beautiful World” (Red House): The singer-songwriter delivers her first studio album since 2005’s “Paradise Hotel.”
John Hiatt, “Same Old Man” (New West): The veteran singer-songwriter puts his wry side aside on this set of unabashed love songs.
Keak Da Sneak, “Deified” (Koch): The longawaited debut from the San Francisco Bay Area rapper features guests appearances by Too $hort, Daz Dillinger, Mobb Deep’s Prodigy and more.
Cyndi Lauper, “Bring Ya to the Brink” (Epic): Twentyfive years later, the girl still just wants to have fun on this return to dance music with help from Basement Jaxx, the Scrumfrog and Max Martin.
Sharon Little, “Perfect
Time For a Breakdown” (CBS): The Philadelphia singer-songwriter rush-released her second album to take advantage of an opening slot for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ “Raising Sand” tour.
Larry Norman, “The Anthology” (Arena Rock): A compilation of work by the man considered the father of Christian rock, who passed away in February.
One Flew South, “Last of the Good Guys” (Decca): The country trio collaborated with songwriting aces J.D. Souther and Marcus Hummon on its debut album.
Return to Forever, “The Anthology” (Concord): A double CD compiling the best from the jazz all-star group’s four albums, timed to coincide with this summer’s reunion tour.
Jenny Scheinman, “Jenny Scheinman” (Koch), “Crossing the Field” (Koch): The noted session violinist (Norah Jones, Lucinda Williams, Madeleine Peyroux) issues her first vocal album in her self-titled effort, along with her fifth instrumental set.
Sirhan Sirhan, “Blood” (Anodyne): The first fulllength effort from the San Diego underground trio.
36 Crazyfists, “The Tide and Its Takers” (Ferret): The Alaskan headbangers turn in their fourth album in preparation for this summer’s Rockstar Energy Mayhem festival run.
Various Artists, “Coolest Songs in the World! Vol. 5” (Wicked Cool): Detroit bands the Hentchmen and the Raconteurs join a variety of vets and newcomers on this latest compilation from Little Steven Van Zandt’s garage rock empire.
Various Artists, “Sex and the City: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack” (New Line): “Mood” music to accompany one of the summer’s hottest movies from Fergie, Nina Simone, India. Arie and film co-star Jennifer Hudson.
Bobby Womack, “The Best of: The Soul Years” (Capitol/EMI): This collection of essential material from the soul great accompanies the digital release of seven of his individual albums
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