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Justin Bieber performs at a free open-air concert at Zocalo Square in Mexico City June 11, 2012.


1.5 out of 4 stars

Justin Bieber
Island Def Jam/Universal

More than two dozen producers worked on this record. I would guess that fewer people have a hand in an open-heart surgery. The heart is worth mentioning when talking about Bieber's latest record, because most of the 16 songs are about the yearnings of this organ. Our hero waits by the phone, or pleads at the door, or dreams about still loving if he were really poor, and all for the sake of his hungry heart.

The object of all this heartfulness is pretty vague. She needs to be wooed, that's all we know. If we're feeling optimistic about our hero's chances, we have to hope she goes for guys with a low pulse rate, because there's not much heart in Bieber's tune-slinging about love. His voice has been smoothed, Auto-Tuned and conditioned to such a pale and lifeless standard, it makes Bruno Mars seem as wild as Screamin' Jay Hawkins.

This is what pop stardom looks like in 2012: You climb the slippery pole while still in your teens, get 22 million followers to read your tweets, and sell out your whole North American tour in an hour. Your handlers respond by draining your vital fluids and injecting liquid nylon. It's that hyper-synthetic radio sound, and there seems to be no escape for the likes of Bieber.

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The songs cover a wide span of styles, from the thumping dance-pop of All Around the World (which recalls Britney's Till the World Ends) to the dub-steppish As Long as You Love Me and the gritless, Brazilian-flavoured MOR balladry of Catching Feelings.

The process is so homogenizing that even when a pal (Drake) comes in for a duet, he ends up sounding pretty much like Bieber.

One could cite the old saw about too many cooks. But that implies that the broth was ruined by conflicting efforts, and that there was only one broth. Few of the 16 broths at Bieber's table were handled by the same people, yet he sounds like a pop zombie in every one.

But those healers only try to preserve the living. Bieber's helpmates had a harder task: to drain the life out of something, then reanimate it in synthetic form.


The Bravest Man in the Universe
Bobby Womack (XL)
2.5 stars

You want to like this album from Bobby Womack, the great old soul man and new cancer survivor. But Womack's gritty croons are often distracted by the fangled beats and what-have-yous of producers Damon Albarn and Richard Russell (who helmed that great comeback album by the late Gil Scott-Heron, I'm New Here). Unfortunately, here, the affecting lead single Please For-give Me, with its icy beats, muffled-heart pulse and Womack's deep testimony, is no clue to the rest of this well-worth-a-listen but intriguing misfire of earnest juxtapositions. The stunt casting of Lana Del Rey and her milky warble on Dayglo Reflection is just an intrusion. This could have, should have, been better. Brad Wheeler

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Looking 4 Myself
Usher (RCA/Sony)
3 stars

That popcorn-like sound you will be hearing shortly is the baby boomers' heads exploding as they hear Usher's Can't Stop Won't Stop, with its sample of the woah-woah-woah section of Billy Joel's Uptown Girl. That's the first of many reasons to dig the crooner's seventh album; where most albums are shaped by the artist's singular vision, Looking 4 Myself is a triumph of curation. Usher is a producer's dream, willing to subsume his voice to the constraints of an Auto-Tuned Top 40 bid; to cut loose with balletic melisma (the angsty I Care for U) or to break out the gospel shouts for Pharrell's irresistible Twisted. He lacks the personality to be an MJ or a Marvin, but with his skills and pliability, Usher's the perfect hitmaker for this outsourcing-driven pop age. Dave Morris

Liars (Mute)
3.5 stars

Every novice soundtrack composer knows that making dark, sad music is as easy as stringing together a few minor chords. Making music that's unsettling is much harder, but after five edgy and varied albums, Liars could be giving masterclasses in it. The nomadic trio's sixth outing draws on generic electronic sounds (Brats could have been a nightclub hit if Angus Andrew's off-kilter vocals were a touch less weird) and does jarring things with them, such as the funhouse-mirror distorting of pitches and textures on the disc's title track. WIXIW is less of a rock record than their fifth, Sisterworld, but the mood is similar: It's what the 48th hour of no sleep feels like, when the horizon and the blacktop melt together and you can't tell whether you're about to run off the road - or you already have. D.M.

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (Universal)
3 stars

Alex Ebert invented Edward Sharpe as a wholesome antidote to his louche persona as lead singer of the Los Angeles band Ima Robot. No cool urban ironies for Sharpe - he's a gentle soul who espouses a nature-minded gospel of love and freedom. "Reachin' for heaven is what I'm on Earth to do," he sings in the easy-rolling Dear Believer. Sharpe's visionary lyrics are grounded in earthy, plain melodies, shuffling dance rhythms and resonant tangles of guitar, choral voices and horns. In Mayla, aphoristic guitar riffs skirt the edges of a campfire singalong. In Fiya Wata, the charismatic Jade Castrinos delivers a swaying, billowing, Cat Power-ish ode to the river of love. The large band - a dozen including the leader - serves both as a resource and a metaphor. Take off your shoes when you listen to this record. Robert Everett-Green

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